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Student Affairs Leaders as Peer Reviewers: Experience Yields Individual and Institutional Benefits

Supporting the Profession
October 23, 2019 Sarah B. Westfall Karen L. Pennington


The authors have both served as peer reviewers for their respective regional accrediting agencies for more than a decade, and they attest to the value of the experience for senior-level student affairs colleagues. Many of the six regional accreditors are actively seeking peer reviewers or evaluators with student affairs expertise, providing a powerful professional development opportunity for vice presidents for student affairs.

The accreditation process is designed to ensure the high quality of education in a manner transparent to stakeholders and constituents. Through a thorough peer evaluation of institutional practices, ranging from assessment and student learning to budget and finance, accreditation is critical to institutions’ eligibility for Title IV federal financial aid dollars. The historical, and perhaps most meaningful, purpose is to assist institutions in their continual improvement process, which is wholly in line with the daily work of student affairs.

Being a peer reviewer has both institutional and individual benefits. Institutional benefits include: the expertise to help one’s own institution prepare for and navigate the process of accreditation; first-hand benchmarking experience with similar institutions; a comprehensive knowledge of other campuses that can be used to anticipate future issues and potential home-campus impacts; and a platform for the regional accrediting context to be informed by an institutional perspective.

Individual benefits of serving as a peer reviewer include: gaining knowledge from review team members and other institutions; learning a great deal in a short, intense time period; and gaining exposure to and practice with established consulting practices. Though varied among the six regional accrediting agencies, the training provided for peer reviewers and evaluators is valuable, especially as it pertains to assessment. Over time, peer review work provides varied and increasing levels of responsibility such as opportunities for international accreditation visits and to serve as a team chair and member of the Higher Learning Commission’s Institutional Actions Council.

What Makes an Effective Peer Reviewer?

  • an understanding and demonstration of loyalty to processes, which have regulatory and legal ramifications;

  • respectful curiosity about other institutions and a desire to improve higher education overall;

  • flexibility in working with others, especially individuals from other institutions;

  • strong analytical and writing skills; and

  • the ability to meet tight deadlines and to participate in ongoing training.

The opportunity to think in broad ways, free from home-campus concerns and norms, is a powerful, enriching experience.

Participation in a regional accreditation visit also provides significant time to think. In our fast-paced and scattered professional lives, we often lack the time to explore new ideas or focus on new concepts and how they can be integrated into student affairs work in the most effective ways. Time away from campus, looking at how others manage similar issues, provides an opportunity for idea stimulation not readily available on a daily basis.

Seasoned student affairs administrators are being actively recruited by several of the regional accrediting agencies for experiences and perspectives that differ from most peer reviewers who are faculty members. The following qualities make student affairs leaders good candidates as peer reviewers or evaluators:

  • a broad institutional view, administrative experience with an understanding of student life, and experience typically at more than one institution;
  • experience with multiple departments and roles including budget and finance, non-faculty human resource and supervisory experience, and assessment of cocurricular life;
  • a good sense of and appreciation for "process" and the importance of fidelity to it, which is essential to effective peer review; and
  • strong interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence, including experience with external scrutiny, internal criticism, and regulatory constraints. 

Student affairs staff also can recognize when individuals might be trying to advance their own agenda at the expense of others or institutions, which is particularly important to conducting an objective review. These skills also ease the process of working with changing groups during peer reviews.

Seasoned, senior-level student affairs professionals have much to offer to the processes of institutional accreditation and much to gain from participating as peer reviewers or evaluators. This involvement can be challenging, interesting, and rewarding.

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