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The Roles and Responsibilities of an HLC Peer Reviewer

Peer review in accreditation is based on the fundamental assumption that quality in higher education is best served through a process that enables peers of the institution, informed by standards created and applied by professionals in higher education, to make the judgments essential to assuring and advancing the quality of higher learning.

Peer Reviewer Roles

Peer review means bringing judgment based on experience and knowledge to the evaluation process—from setting the standards, to conducting the evaluation, to making final decisions. In all evaluation processes, judgment, reason, and the documentation of evidence contribute to effective peer review. This is especially true for HLC’s accreditation activities; for the breadth of its Criteria for Accreditation requires that their application be informed significantly by the context of the institution and its mission.

Members of the Peer Corps serve as agents of HLC in its evaluation and decision-making processes.

Peer reviewers may serve in a single role or may hold multiple roles simultaneously. In addition, peer reviewers may also serve as members of HLC decision-making groups. Further, they may be invited to serve as speakers, trainers and mentors for HLC programs or as members of HLC task forces and advisory teams.

HLC also includes representatives of the public in its decision-making groups and makes use of one-time peer reviewers who are not regular members of the Corps when appropriate.

Primary Responsibilities of Peer Reviewers

HLC peer reviewers have two primary responsibilities:

  1. Public certification of institutional quality. Within its context and mission, peer reviewers provide assurance of the institution by affirming its fulfillment of the Criteria for Accreditation.
  2. Institutional improvement. Within the context and mission of the institution, peer reviewers offer consultative information intended to contribute to the quality of its academic offerings and to its improvement.

Characteristics of Effective Peer Reviewers

Effective peer reviewers have several attributes.

They are organizational generalists rather than programmatic specialists. HLC's peer review processes evaluate and accredit an entire institution as a whole. To achieve this, HLC selects and prepares its peer reviewers to conduct evaluations as generalists rather than as administrative, functional area, or programmatic specialists. As generalists, peer reviewers must prepare comprehensively for their HLC work.

Peer reviewers should not confuse institutional and programmatic accreditation. Institutional accreditation does not testify to the merits of every unit or program, nor does HLC attempt to assure that every subject-area specialty is evaluated in depth or represented by peer reviewers.

Peer reviewers maintain objectivity and confidentiality. They must be able to render impartial and objective decisions on behalf of HLC. Therefore, HLC will not knowingly allow participation by persons whose past or present activities could affect their ability to be impartial and objective in evaluation processing.

Before participating in an evaluation process, peer reviewers agree to HLC’s Confirmation of Objectivity and Professional Confidentiality policies as regards the institution being evaluated. Confirmation of Objectivity requires disclosure of any conflicts, any predisposition about the institution, or any affiliation that could be prejudicial to the institution in deliberations and decision making or that could otherwise affect in any way such deliberations or decision making.

In addition to confirming objectivity, peer reviewers must agree to protect confidentiality. Professional Confidentiality requires peer reviewers to hold in confidence all information obtained during accreditation processes, including information from discussions with other peer reviewers or with HLC staff and from HLC file materials (previous team reports, portfolios, appraisals, data reports, correspondence, etc.).

Peer reviewers make use of reason and judgment through deliberation. Effective peer reviewers engage in deliberation, recognizing that their role is fundamentally interpretive and requires understanding, reason and wise judgment in applying the Criteria and Core Components to a specific organization.

Expectations and Abilities of Peer Reviewers

For accreditation based on peer review to be a credible and effective tool in self-regulation and self-improvement, peer reviewers are expected:

  • To attend HLC training as required.
  • To understand, abide by, and be able to apply the principles, policies, processes, Criteria for Accreditation, Policy Book, peer review manuals, and additional guidelines and other relevant material maintained on the HLC website.
  • To recognize the time and commitment necessary to serve as a peer reviewer and to accept and follow through on team assignments and visit invitations.
  • To maintain a generalist rather than a subject-area or specialist role.
  • To prepare comprehensively and well so as to be informed and knowledgeable about the institution.
  • To communicate with other peer reviewers as appropriate to prepare for, conduct and provide a record of the evaluation or event.
  • To meet the time and schedule expectations of the evaluation or event.
  • To participate fully as peer reviewers, carrying out the roles as assigned by HLC and/or the team chair or leader.
  • To make fair and objective judgments using relevant information when evaluating an institution.
  • To provide consultation that effectively advances the work of the institution and contributes to its ongoing improvement.
  • To conduct themselves as professionals throughout the visit, demonstrating respect for the institution and its mission and basing judgments related to the institution's accreditation on demonstrated evidence.
  • To protect confidentiality.
  • To show respect for the institution and the people associated with it.

Application and Selection of Peer Reviewers

By policy, the majority of members of the Peer Corps must be full-time faculty and administrators from member institutions in good standing. HLC recruits prospective peer reviewers; it accepts nominations for prospective peer reviewers; and it accepts applications from people who want to serve as a peer reviewer.

Terms of Service

When first joining the Peer Corps, members complete a probationary term that requires building experience and participating in required training. A peer reviewer's appointment will be reviewed at the end of the probationary period. If invited to continue to serve on the Corps, a peer reviewer will be placed on a four-year term. At the expiration of a term, a peer reviewer may be invited to reapply for reappointment for successive four-year terms.

Education and Training

HLC continually improves the effectiveness of the Peer Corps through enhanced education and training programs. Before becoming full members of the Corps, peer reviewers must complete the required education and training programs upon entering the Corps and are expected to attend additional education and training programs as needed to fulfill and remain current in their roles.

Evaluation of Peer Reviewers

As part of its continuous improvement processes, HLC invites institutions, HLC staff, and peer reviewers to evaluate the overall effectiveness of the evaluation process and the performance of individual peer reviewers. The evaluation responses are used in the term review of individual peer reviewers, in improving HLC’s education and training programs, and in evaluating the general effectiveness of HLC’s processes.