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portal: Libraries and the Academy 4.1 (2004) 145-148
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Flying the Colors:
Coping Successfully with Site Visits from Accrediting Agencies
Think how the words "I'll handle it" would sound if you had a problem at work and needed someone else's help with it. If you're a library director, or responsible for any portion of public service or collection development at your academic library, you are that someone for any number of department heads on campus. In turn, they're not only responsible to students and the school's administration for program quality but they're also responsible to certifying or accrediting agencies. These agencies will look closely both at the program and at the institution's support for it. Next to the teaching faculty, students depend heavily on the campus library and its librarians for the information they need to complete assignments. That's why the library will be one of the stops made by visiting teams when they arrive on campus to assess the quality of the program they're accrediting.
Your parent institution, your library, and you are each responsible to certifying agencies for technical programs, like auto body repair, and to vocational and professional entities that assess the quality of nursing and allied health care programs and paralegal programs. Many states also have their own official educational oversight agencies that conduct site visits. Finally, since the United States has no nationally centralized agency responsible for college-level program quality, there are eight regional organizations that accredit colleges. The effort you put into preparing for their visits is an investment in your success, as well as the success of an educational program under scrutiny.
Higher education has been using accreditation as a tool for ensuring program quality since the late eighteen hundreds. At one time any similarity of program standards among degree-granting institutions was as much a matter of coincidence as it was of [End Page 145] conscious design. High school students interested in college had little assurance that the studies they felt drawn to were a logical progression from the material they learned in secondary school. They also couldn't be certain that their prospective curriculum enjoyed any currency among other colleges. Accrediting bodies were a natural response to these needs. The development of the regional accrediting associations that function today was not only to guarantee that standards would be met but, equally, to avoid the possibility that these same standards would be codified and enforced by a government agency.
The separate accreditation of professional and vocational programs goes back about one hundred years to the standards pioneered by the American Medical Association during the first years of the twentieth century. Today entities as diverse as the Society of American Foresters and the National Automotive Technicians Education Foundation vouch for the viability of certificate and degree-granting programs. Each enables interested persons to judge a program's quality without either having to be experts themselves or having to go through the program and test the quality of their education in employment.
Expect a site visit for a new program's initial accreditation or if a program's being revived after having been disbanded. Follow-ups are usually scheduled for a period of two to five years. The visits from your regional accrediting agency or the state agency won't be surprises for you, as the team will notify campus administration, which in turn will notify you. In contrast, you'll probably find out about a visit from a program-accrediting agency, like the state board responsible for nursing programs, from the department chair. Maintain good communications with them. You need to find out about site visits as soon as possible after the chair finds out so you can prepare an acceptable report and plan some kind of response if you find deficiencies in the collection.
Prepare for short-notice announcements of site visits by having pre-written general response memos already in your files to use as templates for your more specific responses to the visiting...