Two members of the AACSB Peer Review Team offer insight into the accreditation review process

What is your current position?

Richardson: My current position is professor of marketing, but when I visited your school I was dean of the College of Business at Mississippi State University. I chose to return to the faculty this month. My Ph.D. is in marketing from the University of Alabama.

Giamartino: I am dean and professor of management in the School of Business at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. My Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University is in social psychology with a specialization in organizational behavior.

How did you come to be part of a site review team?

Richardson: I was asked to chair the peer review team by AACSB International. Dean Puto had suggested me as a potential chair because of my experiences working at an urban school – the University of Alabama at Birmingham – my Midwest experience at Ball State University and because I have chaired several initial accreditation teams for AACSB. He knew I was well versed in the process.

Giamartino: Chris Puto and I struck up a relationship several years ago as members of the Jesuit business school network. He was dean of the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown, and I was dean of the College of Business Administration at the University of Detroit–Mercy.

Deans request the members of their review team during the pre-accreditation process. Schools are asked by AACSB to identify peer, competitor and aspirant schools. From that group, the host dean will submit a list of names, AACSB will review the list and, eventually, the three-person team is selected.

It’s important that the site visit team have some knowledge of and affinity for the host school in order to better understand the particular – and sometimes peculiar – forces affecting a school’s mission and strategies to meet the standards.

What do you feel are the key qualities required to be an effective member of a peer review team?

Richardson: Knowledge of the AACSB International standards, inquisitiveness so that you can ask lots of questions about how everything is done … and I do mean everything … and a high energy level!

Most people asked to serve as team members are experienced deans with two to three years in the position, so a general understanding of how business schools work is almost mandatory. A brand new dean would not normally be asked to serve on a peer review team.

Giamartino: You have to be available, and I don’t mean that lightly. There’s a good deal of work involved.

Team members also must possess a willingness to be of service to higher education and a willingness to lend their expertise to help improve business education globally. Teams are made up of true educators – people who really do value education.

Within the AACSB standards, what, specifically, are you asking questions about? In other words, how do you get at the reality of those standards being met in their execution as opposed to on paper?

Richardson: Without getting too technical, the standards are grouped into three major sections: Strategic Management, Participants and Assurance of Learning. There are 21 total standards, but only 20 applied to St. Thomas because it does not have doctoral programs.

For the Strategic Management standards, for example, we ask questions regarding your strategic plan: Do you have one? What’s the process to create and update it? We look at the financial situation to make sure you have the resources to do what you want to do.

For the Participants standards, we consider the student quality, e.g. admissions standards and processes; staff resources both inside the business school and for those in the university who support the business school, such as the library; and faculty qualifications. We spend a lot of time considering how current the faculty are in their preparation to teach. We look at the faculty’s credentials, including degrees and scholarship, to make sure that they are considered qualified to teach.

Assurance of Learning is all about assessment: Are the students learning what you think you’re teaching them? The Opus College of Business created learning goals and ways to assess each of the goals, and we reviewed them.

Giamartino: That’s the crux of what we do during the visit, which is designed to give us the opportunity to uncover clues in real time with real people and to look for support of what the school wrote in its Self Evaluation Report (SER). If the SER were all we had to go on, our job would be easy. But it’s difficult to capture the culture of a school on paper, the dedication that may exist between faculty and students. But you can if you visit a school, listen to students talk about the opportunities they have to interact with faculty and see how people interact with each other. It allows us to grasp the intangibles that are difficult to communicate.

One of the great things we saw at St. Thomas was a really strong dedication by faculty to help their students learn and a strong professional development interest on the part of faculty. The faculty had a willingness to engage in real service to students. They were willing to devote time and energy to their research but also realized that their first responsibility was to students. That came through very palpably.

In your experience, which of the three categories of standards would you say schools struggle to achieve most often?

Richardson: Here’s the classic answer … it depends!

Generally, the two areas most business schools struggle with are related to Participants (faculty, in particular) or Assurance of Learning, especially if the school has been accredited a long time and is having to do something different than “the way they’ve always done it.” Schools such as St. Thomas that have recently gone through the initial accreditation process tend to do a much better job, in my opinion, than long-accredited schools in the Assurance of Learning area. Given the economy, it’s sometimes hard for schools to meet the standards for faculty who are academically or professionally qualified.

Giamartino: I agree with Lynne. The Assurance of Learning part is often a struggle. The nature of our relationship with our students is not transactional. It’s not as if we’re asking someone if they were satisfied with their meal or their airline flight. Those questions can help measure a particular point in time. But higher education is concerned with a longer period of time, and the relationships are much deeper. Faculty or advisers, for example, help with everything from courses to career planning, and sometimes even with personal problems. So the exposure is repeated over time. Exposure often improves when people get to know each other. Those are difficult things to measure. But that’s what we look for. We look for evidence that the school has thought carefully about learning goals, about how to measure a student’s progress toward those goals. We look for evidence that, when the school has said it will do something, it actually has a means to demonstrate that it has done it … and to an acceptable standard.

Education is an art, but there also is some science involved in the craft. What the AOL standards do is allow us to apply what we know in ways that benefit our students.

How much do you prepare for a site visit? In other words, how familiar were you with the background of St. Thomas before you and the team arrived here?

Richardson: You do lots of reading – all of the materials that the school provides plus appropriate websites. You read and take notes as to what questions the materials provoke, and then on the visit you ask those questions. I couldn’t tell you how much time this takes as it’s individualized per team member. But you are fairly aware of the school’s characteristics before you arrive.

Giamartino: Most people are aware only of the three days when we visit campus. What they don’t see are the hours spent in preparation for the visit, in reviewing the application materials, the Self Evaluation Report and all the supporting material.

A good team will look at what the school submits – it will ask the school for clarification, additional materials or anything it can use to make its most informed decision. But it also will do investigating on its own. Team members will talk to people to get a good idea of what the school is like in order to add another point of verification to what the school submitted.

I want to focus now on St. Thomas, specifically. In your assessment, what stood out as the university’s strength before you arrived? And did that assessment change during or after your visit?

Richardson: The cohesiveness of the school’s offerings and operations … and that did not change during the visit. It was obvious through the written materials that much planning had been done and that it had been implemented well. The school had a (AACSB accreditation) strategy that was clear and everyone worked together (even on two campuses and with graduate and undergraduate programs) to achieve the goal.

Giamartino: One of the things that stood out was the incredible change that occurred in business education at St. Thomas over six to seven years. Business at the college today is very different than it was seven years ago … very different. It differs in quality, in scope, in learning opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students, and in student interactions.

One of the things I observed was that students were competitive, but not combative. They want to do well, but not at the expense of classmates. The business school does a great job of offering collaborative competition … or competitive collaboration. This type of atmosphere stimulates students to push each other … and stimulates faculty to push students in good ways.

Something we saw that we did not anticipate was the loyalty of students to the institution. This is a result of very deliberate efforts on the part of faculty and faculty leaders to develop and enhance a sense of loyalty among students.

Looking at the Standards, where would you say St. Thomas excels – faculty, AOL, etc.?

Richardson: I think St. Thomas excels in all three major areas. I would be hard pressed to say that one area stood out over the others, which, of course, is a good thing. St. Thomas had the complete, strong package.

Giamartino: Yes, the college excelled across the board.

Have you ever not recommended a school for accreditation?

Richardson: All of the schools – I think I’ve done perhaps five visits – that were up for initial accreditation were recommended for accreditation. On the maintenance side, several teams I’ve served on (both as a team chair and member) have recommended a sixth year review for schools. During maintenance, a school cannot delay a visit or pull out of the process, so they must be reviewed whether they are ready or not. Typically the two areas that cause schools trouble in maintenance are faculty qualifications and Assurance of Learning. St. Thomas now will be in the maintenance process and will be visited again in five years.

Giamartino: Yes. It’s not a rubber stamp. The reason we go through this process is that the school may think it’s ready, but without an external review process there’s no way of telling.

It has been rumored that you told Dean Puto that we were “the best kept secret in the Midwest.” What did you mean by this?

Richardson: I love the question! Essentially, I meant that outside of the Twin Cities area, people are unaware of the strong programs offered by the college. You have a tremendous school and should make sure others are aware!

Giamartino: I think one of the things the college has done really well is to manage its reputation in such a way that any claims could be substantiated by performance. Dean Puto could have been out lobbying for St. Thomas to be recognized as the best Catholic business school in the Midwest a couple of years ago, but he wanted to wait for the evidence of AACSB accreditation before doing that. You have a good school, you have great people, you have some outstanding programs and you do some innovative things with co-curricular activities. When measured by international standards, St. Thomas can now make claims it could not make before.

Finally, knowing what you now know about the college and the university, if you had to write our marketing collateral, what would you highlight in helping a prospective graduate student truly understand both the defining aspect of a St. Thomas business education and the importance of accreditation by AACSB?

Richardson: I certainly think AACSB accreditation says “quality” to external stakeholders. It’s a mark of excellence, as judged by an external review team – it’s not just the Opus College of Business saying “we’re good.” Others have come in and, when evaluating within a set of standards, have said “you’re good.”

Giamartino: I left St. Thomas with the sense that it is a real learning community. People care about each other, help each other and nurture each other. Yet I also got the sense of true challenge and overall excellence.