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An Analysis of Higher Education Accreditation - page 20 / 60





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The Inmates Running the Asylum?

Prior to their gatekeeper role, accreditors really had no leverage over institutions, and therefore did not pose any threat to institutional autonomy. Also, there is at least one fairly prominent instance during this period when accreditors “helped to safeguard or restore the academic integrity of institutions subjected to political indignity” when accreditation was revoked after state officials excessively meddled with a school.82 Therefore, we’ve rated the accreditation system as doing an exceptional job of maintaining insti- tutional autonomy in the eras prior to 1952.

Once given the gatekeeper role, accreditors essentially gained regulatory authority over colleges. They nevertheless shied away from abusing it, and from 1952 to 1985 the system largely preserved institutional autonomy. The accreditors themselves made few new demands, and the system continued to serve as a “buffer, keeping government at arm’s length from colleges and universities.”83 We therefore rate the accreditation system as performing satisfactorily in this dimension from 1952–1985.

In the current period, it is still true that the accreditors have been phenomenally successful in keeping the government from undermining institutional autonomy. But the accreditors themselves have often taken advantage of their position to do so. From the schools’ point of view, there is little difference between the federal government making demands under threat of withholding federal funding, or an accreditor making demands under threat of withholding federal funding. Everyone acknowledges that having the government prescribe missions or dictate how to achieve them would infringe on institutional autonomy, but very few seem to realize that there is just as much “danger to institutional autonomy and diversity among institutions… when institutional accrediting agencies prescribe missions or specific steps to achieve missions.”84 And yet “accreditors are free to impose standards that go beyond those Congress has mandated, using their leverage to push institutions toward any agenda they wish.”85 They have too fre- quently used their power as federal gatekeepers to “apply intrusive prescriptive standards and [enforce] ideological tests and other criteria unrelated to educational quality.”86

Imposing Ideology. The concern for diversity stressed by many in the higher education arena apparently does not extend to the diversity of ideas. Much too frequently, accreditation has been used to establish and enforce ideological views. Two recent examples stand out. First, the National Council for Accredita- tion of Teacher Education (NCATE) “demands that schools of education assess the ‘dispositions,’ or opin- ions, of teacher trainees as a requirement for accreditation.”87 A second example is the Code of Ethics of the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE).

In both of these examples, students can be subjected to disciplinary punishment and academic sanc- tion if they are not ideologically aligned with their professors. Indeed, the faculty at the Missouri State School of Social Work used the CSWE standards to subject students to “ideological ‘bullying’ (a term that both students and faculty used to describe the actions of certain professors), and producing a learning environment that reviewers called ‘toxic.’”88

Above the Law. Accreditors have also at times imposed standards that would require institutions to break the law. The American Bar Association, which accredits law schools, told colleges that “a constitutional provision or statute that purports to prohibit consideration of gender, race, ethnicity, or national origin in admissions or employment decisions is not justification for a school’s non-compliance” with the Associa- tion’s diversity requirements. There is something deeply troubling in the willingness of the organization that oversees the training of those who are tasked with upholding the law encouraging others to ignore the law when it suits them. Fortunately, not everyone was caught up in such muddled thinking, with the Amer-


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