The Inmates Running the Asylum?
they could about a college or university they are considering, the accreditation system is of little assis- tance to them.”71
Increased federal funding also came with the new “expectation that accreditors should provide the public with information.”72 Accreditation has always been a rather private affair, and that hasn’t changed. What did change was that accreditors were given a public role as gatekeepers, and for the public to have confidence in the process there needs to be transparency. But the accreditors did not adapt to this new function, and largely insist on keeping nearly everything concerning accreditation secret.
The primary reason that accreditors resist transparency is that they are focused on the quality improve- ment role. In order to be effective in the quality improvement role, “accreditation has been designed to provide candid, confidential, critical feedback to institutions without embarrassing or endangering the institution—which would in turn discourage frank engagement with problems and challenges.”73 In other words, accreditors promise discretion to colleges in order to get the candid self-assessment necessary to improve these institutions. If accreditors were more transparent, it would create “a disincentive for colleges to speak openly with accreditors about their problems.”74
Accreditors see little point in providing information to the public since they view their role as helping institutions improve regardless of their current condition. To the extent that informing the public makes institutions less candid, there is even more reason to resist transparency. As a result, virtually everything about accreditation continues to be shrouded in a veil of secrecy. Accreditation reports are kept secret, and the only information available to the public is whether the institution has or does not have accredi- tation. In the words of Milton Greenberg, “It is essentially a confidential process, which hides an institu- t i o n ’ s a d v a n t a g e s a n d d i s a d v a n t a g e s . ” 7 5 E v e n o n c e a n i n s t i t u t i o n h a s c e a s e d t o e x i s t , a c c r e d i t o r s s t i l l r e f u s e t o d i s c l o s e a n y i n f o r m a t i o n a b o u t i t . 7 6 W e t h e r e f o r e c o n c l u d e t h a t a c c r e d i t a t i o n ’ s p e r f o r m a n c e i n t h i s egory has deteriorated relative to its past performance, and believe that it has failed in the latter two eras. c a t -
Evaluation: Inform the Public. Providing information to the public is the category within the quality assurance function where accreditation has historically been strongest. While the process was not trans- parent, it nevertheless provided useful information, leading us to conclude that accreditation did a satis- factory job in the pre-1936 era.
In the era from 1936 to 1952, accreditors became increasingly focused on the quality improvement role, which required discretion and secrecy so as to avoid embarrassing member colleges. While this would be a problem later on, accreditation was still a voluntary private affair, and still provided some useful informa- tion to the public. Therefore, accreditation was serving social purposes in a reasonably satisfactory fashion.
Once accreditors were given the gatekeeper role for federal funding, virtually every institution in oper- ation needed to have accreditation. This near universality erased the information on college quality that
TABLE 5 HISTORICAL PERFORMANCE IN THE INFORM THE PUBLIC CATEGORY
Inform the Public
N o t e : N A = n o t a p p l i c a b l e , ( + ) = s u p e r b p e r f o r m a n c e F = failure. ,
= s a t i s f a c t o r y p e r f o r m a n c e , ( – ) = u n s a t i s f a c t o r y p e r f o r m a n c e , a n d