By Jan Williams
I was asked recently, "What is the primary value of AACSB business and accounting accreditation?" To which I responded, without hesitation, "Peer review." This year, we at AACSB have done some soul-searching regarding the value of AACSB Accreditation and what we have found is that, while the value varies from school to school and is articulated in different ways, the common underlying theme is peer review.
The dictionary defines "peer" as something of the same rank, value, quality, or ability. In the context of AACSB Accreditation, peer schools have many of the same characteristics in terms of mission, priorities, degree programs, orientation, etc. As schools enter into the Accreditation process, or for those who have been accredited for many years and continue in the maintenance process, an important step is to identify peer schools. These schools are used to provide comparative information, select peer review team (PRT) members, and to serve as a benchmark and provide context for the school being evaluated for its initial or maintenance of accreditation.
Schools also are expected to identify "aspirational peer" schools. Returning to the dictionary for a definition of "aspirational," we find words like ambition, lofty, grand, advanced, and honor. Combining definitions, an aspirational peer school is more advanced in some way(s) than the school that selects it as an aspirational peer. For one school that might be a specific academic program, for another, the school's success in placing students, and for another it might be getting students through their degree programs in record time. For many schools, aspirational peers are simply schools with strong overall reputations for high quality. For the school being evaluated, there is something important to be learned from an aspirational peer.
Peers and aspirational peers can influence a school in many ways. Before a school is ever accredited by AACSB, a mentor (typically from a peer or aspirational peer school) is assigned to assist the school in moving forward. The PRT visit to campus is a critical step in the accreditation process. PRT reports move forward to AACSB committees that are made up of peer and aspirational peer schools that review multiple reports for consistency and equity. The Board of Directors of AACSB consists primarily of individuals from peer and aspirational peer schools. In other words, peer review is the heart and soul of AACSB Accreditation every step of the way.
Why am I writing about peer review at this particular time? First, as we think about AACSB Accreditation and how we can better serve our member schools, we must be mindful of the importance of peer review. Second, not only am I personally involved in peer review both as a chair or member of PRT at other schools, but because my school was subject to a PRT review just a few weeks ago. We had four outstanding educators that looked closely at what we are doing, and requested that they assist us in evaluating key issues we are facing within our business and accounting programs that are not directly related to accreditation. Could we assemble a team of this caliber without AACSB Accreditation? Perhaps we could, but it would be difficult. AACSB Accreditation provides a strong motivation, foundation and standards-based process for continuous improvement that has proven to be effective at literally hundreds of business and accounting programs.
Recently, I had an opportunity to visit with a new dean at a peer university in a neighboring state. We discussed the learning process that occurs from both sides of the table—the school being evaluated and those that do the evaluation. I encouraged him to get involved, and he is already doing that. It is an energizing process, and I encourage all of us to think of it in this manner rather than considering peer review a necessary, sometimes even dreaded, part of the accreditation process. I also encourage you to consider engaging in accreditation by taking the peer review training and accepting the role of member of a PRT for a peer school.
There are three great places to begin your involvement with AACSB Accreditation this year, including the Annual Accreditation Conference September 23–25, 2012 in Atlanta, the Deans Conference January 23–25, 2013 in San Antonio, and at the International Conference and Annual Meeting April 7–9, 2013 in Chicago. You will find representatives of many of your peer and aspirational peer schools at these events and you can easily start the process of informal peer discussion and review. You will make valuable connections and I predict you will never regret your involvement with your peers at other universities.