Accreditation—What is it? and Why is it important?

By Dr. Steve Booth – Academic Dean and Professor of New Testament & Greek

In 1985 Canadian Southern Baptists voted to establish a seminary that would be “committed to achieving excellence in theological education, while maintaining a proper balance of zeal with knowledge, prayer with action, and dependence on God, with the development of practical skills.” The founders of the school intended that assessment of the theological education we offered would not simply be our own opinion or estimation, but that we would undergo the scrutiny of likeminded sister institutions to demonstrate excellence.

So early on, Canadian Southern Baptist Seminary made application to the Association of Theological Schools (ATS), the premier accrediting body for theological schools in North America. When the seminary formally added an undergraduate program, we also applied for membership with the Association of Biblical Higher Education (ABHE). Now as a member school in these two organizations, we participate in holding each other accountable to agreed-upon standards of quality education.

And that is the essence of the accreditation process for seminaries and Bible colleges—widely recognized third-party quality assurance.

It is important to point out that this is a voluntary commitment on the school’s part. We are not forced by any government agency to join organizations like ATS or ABHE. We do so willingly, knowing that it will cost us time and energy and resources in order to maintain our accredited status. But we also believe that the payoff is worth it.

There are several important aspects of accreditation with ATS and ABHE to consider. First, the process is peer based. When visiting teams come to our campus to evaluate what we are doing, they are made up of leaders from sister schools (presidents, deans, faculty, librarians, etc.). They serve as volunteers, taking time off from their schools to help our school meet its goals and fulfill its mission for the greater good of the Kingdom.

The accreditation process is also standard based. This means that visiting teams are not just giving their own professional opinion based on what they do at their schools, but they evaluate schools according to standards that apply to all member schools. Member schools set these standards collectively, based on agreed-upon best practices in higher Christian education.

Additionally, the process is information based. Demonstrating that we are a good school cannot be just our own opinion, but we gather factual information to show that, indeed, we are a healthy institution. A simple example might be in regard to the financial stability of the school. If asked, “How is your school doing financially?” we might reply, “I think we did pretty well last year.” But that would be just one person’s opinion, and perhaps a biased or skewed opinion at that. More accurately, we can demonstrate financial health by showing audited financial statements and annual management letters provided by an external, independent accountant.

Finally, quality accreditation is judgment based. The association, after a thorough investigation, makes a determination as to where a school is meeting agreed-upon standards and where it is not meeting standards. Visiting teams realize that there are no perfect schools because they serve at schools that are not perfect. But they are asked to make a professional judgment that is as much an art as it is a science.

The process begins when a school takes a long, hard look in the mirror and makes their own initial assessment. This requires gathering data, conducting interviews and surveys, and drawing self-evaluations. This process must be broad-based in participation, which means in a school like ours, nearly every employee is involved at some point, as well as students, trustees, alumni, and denominational leaders. Typically, to conduct an adequate self-study will take from one to two years to complete. The report that is produced reflects the school’s opinion of where they meet or fail to meet each standard.

The accrediting association fields a visiting team, and team members read the school’s self-study in advance of the site visit. One of the major objectives of the team is to determine if the facts on the ground match the information in the report. In other words, is the school actually able to conduct accurate self-evaluation, or are they clueless regarding their real status as an institution?

If the essence of accreditation is quality assurance, an equally important outcome of the process can be quality improvement. Conducting a self-study is not just about demonstrating our strengths. We also want to improve where we are weak. Some of these things we already know about, and others we discover in the process. And still others might be uncovered by the visiting team. But that should not be threatening to a school that seeks to grow and learn and improve.

For this reason, I believe the work of accreditation is sacred work. In our most recent self-study, we referenced 1 Corinthians 10:31 at the beginning and the end of the report: “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God.” Our desire is to be the very best school that we can be for God’s glory. And since the accreditation process can assist us toward that goal, we embrace it fully.

Last school year we conducted a self-study, and it was submitted to our two accrediting bodies this past summer. Because of the constraints of COVID-19, this year’s site visits were virtual: ATS on September 28-October 1 and ABHE on October 5-8. The two visiting teams will draft reports and submit them to their respective Boards of Commissioners. Those boards will meet in February 2021 to make their final decision about reaffirmation of our accreditation status. Initial indications from both visiting teams is that their recommendations will be very positive.
Join us in praying that this indeed will be the final outcome in February—for His glory and the advancement of His Kingdom!