On AACSB International’s website, AACSB accreditation is described as “the hallmark of excellence in business education.” The University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business is proud to have earned this hallmark of excellence, but what does it really mean to faculty, staff, alumni and students?

Again and again, St. Thomas stakeholders said the same thing – AACSB accreditation doesn’t mean that St. Thomas has “shaped up” to offer a better business education, one that is now up to AACSB standards. Nor does it mean that St. Thomas “sold out” to offer a cookie cutter business education. Instead, it recognizes excellence that has been here all along.

Tim Flynn ’79, chairman of KPMG International and 2011 distinguished alumnus, sits on both the board of governors for the Opus College of Business and the Board of Trustees for the University of St. Thomas. In his view, the AACSB accreditation serves as a “validation of the tremendous value we bring to students, faculty and the greater community.”

Georgia Fisher, assistant dean and director of undergraduate programs, also thinks of St. Thomas’ history as she reflects on the accreditation. “We’ve been delivering a world-class business education for more than 100 years. This represents an audit by an external, independent group of peers. We know we’ve been doing a good job, and this verifies it.”

While their views did not extend quite that far back, alumni also felt that AACSB accreditation reflected something they already knew about the quality of education offered at St. Thomas. Colleen Soukup completed the undergraduate program in 1982 and received her M.B.A.. from St. Thomas in 1991. She is vice president of worldwide sourcing at General Mills. She says, “For me it’s just a validation of St. Thomas’ integrity and what it has achieved.”

Meghan Hormann, who graduated with the first Full-time UST MBA class in 2005, is assistant vice president at Wells Fargo. She sees the value of AACSB accreditation, but she also values the education she received, with or without accreditation. “Accreditation is extremely important, because it validates us and our hard work. But it doesn’t change the level of education I received. It’s just a bonus.”

Current students express the same thoughts. Annelise Larson is a first-year student in the Full-time UST MBA program. She says, “People in the program know it’s great. This is the icing on the cake.”

While it’s easy to pat ourselves on the back for a job well done, it would be a myth to say that a St. Thomas business education has remained static, or that it will be unchanged in the future, with or without accreditation. “I think the world is in a constant state of change,” says Flynn. “We’re going to continue on this journey. Accreditation enables us to accelerate our ability to build the reputation of the school.”

An Emphasis on MissionBefore St. Thomas decided to pursue accreditation, some stakeholders were concerned about what AACSB accreditation would do to the approach St. Thomas takes to business. Ken Goodpaster, Ph.D., David and Barbara Koch Endowed Chair in Business Ethics, says, “I was a skeptic going in. I had doubts about what it would mean for our culture, but I’ve been overcome by new awareness of the positives. I’m quite optimistic about the future.”

“Under AACSB, we are an internationally recognized brand name. Because AACSB is mission-driven, no one imposes a brand on you. AACSB says that our brand is good and powerful.” –Ameeta Jaiswal Dale, Ph.D., associate professor of finance

One of the primary reasons skeptical stakeholders began to embrace accreditation was AACSB’s emphasis on mission. “Initially, we feared we would lose our distinctiveness, our calling as a Catholic university,” Goodpaster says. “AACSB policy shifted during the late 1990s to a mission centered approach. Once it became clear to us that the accreditation process was mission-driven, that AACSB was not there to change us but to hold us to our mission, we could pursue accreditation. The process was valuable for faculty, because it caused us to think deeply about our mission. We had to point to what things make us distinctive. I really believe that one of the hidden benefits of the accreditation process has been to sharpen our vision and commitment to mission.”

Ameeta Jaiswal Dale, Ph.D., associate professor of finance, says, “Under AACSB, we are an internationally recognized brand name. Because AACSB is mission-driven, no one imposes a brand on you. AACSB says that our brand is good and powerful.”

AACSB holds business schools accountable to their mission and promotes continuous improvement through “Assurance of Learning” standards. Michael Garrison, Ph.D., associate dean, faculty and scholarship, explains what AOL standards are. “Under AACSB, we have to have a system in place to assess student learning.” At the Opus College of Business, faculty decided the four areas that were critical to assess were business acumen, leadership, critical thinking and ethics. Garrison explains that these four areas are assessed through standardized tests, where appropriate, and course embedded measures. Students are tested, and when weaknesses are found, the curriculum must be modified. “It’s a circular process, which allows for ongoing improvement,” says Garrison. St. Thomas had to go through two full cycles of this process in all four areas for its eight graduate and undergraduate business programs before the AACSB peer review team visited in late 2010.

For Jack Militello, Ph.D., professor and director of the Executive and Health Care UST MBA program, this was the most important outcome of the accreditation process. He notes that for people considering the executive-style MBA programs, AACSB accreditation is not critical, but the AOL standards do matter. “The AOL is a powerful tool that gives us a focus and a strategy. It helps us recruit executive-level people. We talk about these, especially critical thinking and leadership, with potential students.”

Retaining Distinctiveness While ChangingSome of the concerns stakeholders had about changes related to faculty. St. Thomas takes great pride in being a school where faculty members, not teaching assistants, teach students. In addition, our business school traditionally had a small full-time faculty. For many students, this was an important part of their educations. Pursuing accreditation meant that the full-time faculty would grow and that they would engage in more research. How would this change the St. Thomas experience?

Evening UST MBA student Braydon Andrews, a Target employee who has attended classes in the program for three years, says, “I wasn’t aware that St. Thomas was pursuing AACSB accreditation when I applied. I came to St. Thomas because of the personal interaction I had with staff. During orientation, Dean Puto spoke about accreditation. He mentioned the percentage of professors with Ph.D.s the school would need. I was initially nervous. Some of my coworkers had attended schools that gave them an education that was more about theory. I wanted real-world experience. But over the past three years, my experience hasn’t changed.” He went on to say that Corey Eakins ’09 M.B.A, director, Evening UST MBA program, went to Target to speak with students from the company about what the accreditation meant. “He spoke about how St. Thomas wants to develop critical thinkers and build ethical business leaders. I asked myself, ‘Am I getting that at St. Thomas?’ and the answer was ‘yes.’”

“We’ve had an influx of new faculty. The late 1980s was the last big spurt of faculty growth here before the recent changes. We have lots of young, energetic people. There’s lots of excitement.” –Jack Militello, Ph.D., professor and director of executive MBA programs

Militello feels that, as the faculty has changed, the culture in the business school has changed … for the better. “We’ve had an influx of new faculty. The late 1980s was the last big spurt of faculty growth here before the recent changes. We have lots of young, energetic people. There’s lots of excitement.” As someone who came out of a “practice” environment, he embraces the positive changes at St. Thomas and wants to avoid potential negative changes. “We need to make sure we keep balance. We can’t lose sight of the applied side of the theory-practice mix.”

Many faculty and staff noted that, despite the growth in the number of full-time faculty, collegiality has increased under the AACSB process. Says Fisher, “Faculty are working more closely outside their departments. Marketing, finance and accounting faculty are asking each other, ‘What needs to be delivered? Where else are students learning x or y?’” Together, they work on improving the curriculum.

Jaiswal Dale would like to see this increased collegiality extend deeper into the university in the future. “Now we can find other ways of connecting to the rest of the university. There are some linkages we need to strengthen, natural alliances with engineering, information technology and some aspects of the liberal arts.”

An increased emphasis on research also benefits the faculty. Goodpaster says, “St. Thomas counts teaching ahead of research. We learned that you could have both. Research doesn’t have to take away from excellence; it can support it.” He adds that a choice of journals for publication means that professors can choose to focus on pedagogical journals rather than pure research journals, if they wish.

Says Jaiswal Dale, “The need for research was a tough sell, but it has a positive impact on teachers. Updating teaching has become more immediate.”

Future ChangesJust as the accreditation process changed the Opus College of Business in some ways, accreditation itself will bring changes. One of the biggest changes will come in international recruitment. Fisher says, “I think we’ll see more international students. The first thing an international student often asks is, ‘Are you accredited?’ This is particularly important for Asian and Middle Eastern students.”

Even when accreditation is not important to international students in and of itself, it can determine whether or not a student hears of St. Thomas. Mary Garcia, a second-year Full-time UST MBA student, is from Venezuela. She found that St. Thomas was a perfect fit for her needs, but she wouldn’t have heard of St. Thomas at all if she hadn’t attended a recruiting fair where she met an admissions counselor from St. Thomas. “For international students, when looking outside your country, you get a list of accredited schools and work from the list. I bought a magazine and a book that listed business schools, and St. Thomas was not listed. Accreditation was not a factor for me. It’s more of the case that since you have no other reference, lists are your first resource for finding out about schools. Now St. Thomas can tell the world, ‘We are here.’”

Dustin Cornwell, director, Full-time UST MBA program, says that accreditation also will change domestic recruitment. “Accreditation changes the conversation. Occasionally, people would say, ‘I hear you’re not AACSB accredited.’ We won’t need to spend time discussing that now. We can have a more productive conversation focusing on the student’s individual goals.”

Beyond changes in the ways we recruit, AACSB accreditation opens new paths for St. Thomas. One of the most obvious ones is achieving national recognition, including recognition through ranking. Eakins says, “I think the accreditation will allow the school to grown in stature and receive more recognition over time. The peer review team said, ‘You’ve done too good a job keeping this place a secret.’”

Neal St. Anthony ’90 M.B.A., business columnist at the Star Tribune, says, “St. Thomas wants to be known as a marquee academic institution in the Midwest, if not nationally. Accreditation gives St. Thomas more standing in the academic world, and St. Thomas shows up on a shorter list with accredited business schools.”

Dave Brennan, Ph.D., professor of marketing and co-director of the Institute for Retailing Excellence, agrees that accreditation opens up a chance for greater recognition. “We have been running all of the races to get into the Olympics. Now we’re in. We have the opportunity to shine in the 5 percent of accredited business schools. We’ve been recognized, which brings further credibility to the college and university.”

But there are more opportunities beyond traditional domestic rankings and recognition. Jaiswal Dale sees the opportunity to become a more global business school. “For example, we could avoid the traditional route of universities that get entrenched in the North American business school atmosphere and instead create alliances worldwide. The Catholic social tradition is global. There are lots of possibilities for doing something creative. We’ve done it in the past and could do more in the future. Knowledge has become more global. Business is not centered here anymore.”

Whatever changes St. Thomas makes, AACSB accreditation will ensure we remain true to our mission as we continuously improve to give our students the best business education possible.

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