Why Universities Don’t Improve

It’s not that universities don’t improve, it’s just that they improve far too slowly and therefore are not in step with the times. What causes that? There are many factors, of course, but let’s consider the role of accreditation on causing slow improvement in academic programs and administrative support.

The various accrediting bodies publish standards. These standards are largely unchanged for many years. When they do change, it is often in decade-plus intervals. The fact the standards do not change more frequently suggests to their clients, universities, that they do not have to change often. Yet, the world, employers, students, technology, etc., change every day. Accreditation standards, therefore, create a clear and present risk to the higher education industry – especially public higher education.

You do not control your destiny if you rely on others to create standards for you.

Contrast that with Lean organizations, where people who own processes set standards for processes, and then they revise the standard whenever anyone has an idea for improving the process. If an organization is led by a capable Lean leader, then people will have many ideas every day, and standards will be revised frequently (daily, weekly) to reflect that.

I have always been of a mindset that colleges and universities, and the individual schools within them, are on the wrong path when they subscribe to the standards of regional, national, and international accrediting bodies. The accrediting bodies offer far more in the way of reasons to maintain the status quo than reasons for rapid improvement and innovation. Their standards stifle creative thinking and innovation. Accrediting bodies are, themselves, a power disincentive for people to consider breakthrough change (called “kaikaku” in Japanese) in response to changing conditions.

Were I president of a university, I would forgo accreditation. It consumes a massive amount of time, effort, and money to do nothing more than maintain the status quo. Instead, we would practice kaizen and create our own standards for each process – together with staff, faculty, administrators, students, alumni, and employers – and improve them every day.

What would the result be? Better courses, better academic programs, better quality teaching, better administrative processes, lower tuition and fees, and so on. Students would be more satisfied and so would other stakeholders. And it might even result in happy faculty!

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