The Higher Learning Commission (HLC, 800.621.7440; higherlearningcommission.org). accredits Northwood and we joined the Academic Quality Improvement Program (AQIP) in 2003.

HLC summarizes the AQIP program as follows:

"The Academic Quality Improvement Program (AQIP) infuses the principles and benefits of continuous improvement into the culture of colleges and universities by providing an alternative process through which an already-accredited institution can maintain its accreditation from the Higher Learning Commission. AQIP calls for institutions to self-assess, using a quality perspective. Analyzing an institution within a quality framework differs from typical approaches to self-study. Seizing significant improvement opportunities requires a systems perspective, not commonplace concentration on individual operational "silos." Self-assessments that narrowly review single offices, units, programs, or departments, even if they eventually survey everything in an institution, miss the chance to see the relations among things - links that may be missing, weak, or ineffective" (Chapter 6).

Northwood's AQIP efforts have included two broad phases:

Beginning and implementation

  • Attend an AQIP Strategy Forum* - we sent a team in January 2004 to the Strategy Forum and the through prework and discussion at the Forum, the team identified three Action Projects on which the institution would focus. These included institutional strategy, employee development initiative, and student retention.
    • Please note: Northwood attended its second Strategy Forum in November, 2008. Key elements addressed included systems and processes associated with overall institutional improvement and human resources.
  • Identify and work on AQIP Action Projects* - our three current Action Projects identified include:
    • Assessing Student Learning Outcomes
    • Employee Development Initiative
    • Student Retention
      • Northwood submits progress on the projects each September to AQIP and receives feedback about the projects. Project information is available through the Director of Institutional Effectiveness office.
  • Conduct self-assessment and submit AQIP Systems Portfolio*
    • We submitted our Systems Portfolio in October, 2007. The portfolio is written against nine AQIP Categories and includes an organizational overview. A description of the categories and links to PDF files of Northwood's response to the category questions are found below.
  • Receive and address Systems Appraisal*
    • We received our Systems Appraisal - feedback on the Systems Portfolio from appraisers - in March of 2008 and used both the Systems Portfolio and Systems Appraisal in informing our strategic plan and aligned operating plans. We remain diligent in enhancing our identified strengths and in addressing our key and prioritized opportunities for improvement.

*For a description of these events/activities, please visit the AQIP web site.

Infusion in the culture

  • At Northwood, AQIP is not a stand-alone project - it is the way we lead and conduct business - a focus on processes, results, and ongoing improvement efforts.
  • Program Reviews, Curriculum Reviews, Performance Evaluations are all tied to AQIP principles.
  • Our strategic plan, Northwood Positioning Statement, 2008 and Beyond, maps to our AQIP self-assessment activities and thus our ongoing focus on strategy and operating plans ensures infusion of the AQIP spirit into our ethos.
  • We communicate regularly regarding AQIP-related activities. Examples include President Pretty's One Northwood (weekly message) and newsletters.
  • Northwood is a member of Michigan's Total Quality Improvement Project (MiTQIP). The purpose of the MiTQIP is to foster the development and implementation of quality systems to improve student learning.

In preparation for the 2008 AQIP Strategy Forum, we were asked to address two overarching questions:

1. What are our lessons learned on the AQIP journey to this point?

2. If we projected through November 2011, how would our AQIP efforts be viewed?

In preparation for the 2012 AQIP Strategy Forum we were again asked question 1. The responses for both follow.

AQIP Lessons Learned Through November 2008

  • AQIP is Everyone's Role

To be effective and transformative, the AQIP ethos must be embedded in the university's culture; not in a person, an office, or a program. AQIP and its focus on continuous assessment, improvement of processes, and use of results is better addressed through making AQIP everyone's responsibility and establishing it as a way of doing business. Structuring strategic and operating plans, ongoing internal and external messaging, plans for student learning endeavors, and Board interactions around AQIP principles have been effective to ensure connectedness and big-picture thinking.

  • The Focus on Process/Results Is a Journey

Improving a process or using results is not a one-time endeavor or even a destination. Rather, instilling a culture of articulating and questioning/improving processes is a daily occurrence - in individual interactions, functional areas, and cross-cultural teams. The same holds true for results. Taking a step back and keeping the end goal in mind, assessing the current measurement system's strengths and gaps, understanding what the system should address (input, output), and ensuring the system takes constant nurturing. Results are not produced via any quick actions. Celebrating wins on process improvements and results is key, as is being up front about gaps in the system.

  • AQIP Learnings should be subsumed within Strategic and Operating Plans.

An institution learns a great deal from AQIP Action Projects, self-assessment from the Systems Portfolio, external feedback from appraisers via the Systems Portfolio Appraisal, and the like. It is easy to take these in piecemeal fashion or work on them somewhat independently. However, our goal is to avoid suboptimization and distilling/aggregating the learnings. Feeding them into a planning process can be effective, especially if the focus on plan execution is broad and ongoing.

  • Systems Portfolio can and should be updated constantly.

The importance of keeping processes updated and tracking results via the likes of dashboards/scorecards is exacerbated in organizations that tend to err on the side of being person-dependent rather than process dependent. This is true for small and large organizations, those that are dispersed like Northwood with varying Operating Units and locations, and those that have a potentially large proportion of employees who may be exiting the workforce in the coming years. Thus, the goal is to ensure processes are articulated and results are used; the subsidiary effect is that of keeping the Systems Portfolio de facto up-to-date. This is true for "big picture" processes/results and those that apply within Operating Units.

  • The goal is continuous adaptation and communication and transparency within such is key.

Culture change begins with leadership and leadership comes from varying employees throughout the organization. Culture change includes constant, reinforcing communication and transparency. AQIP's value is allowing for Operating Units to be under the microscope constantly, focusing on accountability and the ability to constantly adapt to changing external and internal environments. Strengths must be applauded and opportunities/gaps should be viewed/managed as simply areas for action.

AQIP Lessons Learned Through November 2012

  • It is critically important to communicate and act on the output of improvement project/initiatives.

We have found that it is critically important communicate and act on outputs of improvement initiatives. Not doing so potentially wastes resources and represents a lost opportunity for improvement. Participants need to see the results of their efforts. If they do not see their impact, enthusiasm and engagement of staff and faculty towards participation in future continuous improvement projects can wane and has the potential to undermine the institution-wide quality system.

  • Truly continuous improvement is more effective than event-driven improvement.

By its very nature AQIP is about continuous improvement yet there can be a tendency to communicate, act and report around particular events such as updating Action Projects or submitting System Portfolio. Continuously reviewing and refreshing reporting is more powerful and helps alleviate the impression that it is a compliance-driven process.

  • Sometimes it's important to 'connect the dots' between AQIP and institutional quality/continuous improvement system.

The university consciously positioned AQIP as synonymous with continuous improvement and not a stand-alone program. An unintended consequence has been lower visibility across staff and faculty about ‘what we are doing for AQIP’ or the importance of AQIP. The challenge is to find the right balance of AQIP visibility and explicit alignment to the institution’s strategic initiatives and embedding the philosophy and methodology into our continuous improvement culture.

  • We are most successfull when we use project management discipline for continuous improvement initiatives.

While a continuous improvement culture includes constantly making incremental changes, it is often manifested in improvement projects (not just AQIP Action Projects). Our experience shows that each project should have a clearly defined champion and/or project leader, a project charter, project plan and communication and change plan.

  • Show me the value!

Improvement always results in change but change does not always result in improvement. Clearly defining and communicating ‘the why’ as well as ‘the what’ is critical to success. Continuous improvement initiatives must include a clear value proposition and a connection drawn to institutional value, value to staff and faculty, and most importantly, value to students and other stakeholders.

Our projections for how AQIP efforts are viewed in the future are unchanged:

  • Current Understanding
    • Northwood's employees and stakeholders understand AQIP to be our way of ensuring continued improvement and excellence - pressing us for ongoing breakthrough improvements and innovations.
    • We do not espouse what AQIP's categories or principles are because they are part and parcel of our work within strategic execution, process improvement and overall ways of doing business.
    • We have solidified of key processes and collect and USE meaningful data/information regularly. The data and information create a line of sight from strategy to operating units/functional areas to individual work.
    • Our revised strategic plan addresses AQIP categories and principles, though not explicitly.
    • Overall, the term AQIP evokes the understanding of continued analysis, adaptation, updating, and improvement.
  • Effort/Involvement/Infrastructure
    • AQIP is branded as being part of everyone's role and as such, process and results foci are part of operating unit and functional area expectations.
    • Scorecards and dashboards create energy around effort and understanding of organizational performance.
    • Involvement comes in the way of ongoing academic program and curriculum reviews, operational reviews, and venues for knowledge sharing.
    • Infrastructure involves new hires (faculty and staff) possessing improvement-based practices, orientation focused on the culture of performance excellence, and employee performance reviews being tied to AQIP methodologies; it does not include an AQIP-designated office.
  • Overall Approach and Feelings About AQIP
    • We approach AQIP as a way we do things - not a program, not an accrediting hoop through which to jump, and not a mere compliance process.
    • AQIP causes us to have higher expectations of ourselves, ever-escalating expectations of being the best we can be, systematically benchmarking performance and driving toward global excellence as part of our Vision, Mission, and Strategic Priorities.
    • Feelings toward "AQIP" are transferred to the One Northwood concept and our Vision and Mission. Thus, many folks will not recognize AQIP as the accrediting method, but rather, our improvement philosophy.