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An Analysis of Higher Education Accreditation - page 21 / 60





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Andrew Gillen, Daniel L. Bennett, Richard Vedder

ican Law Deans Association retorting that “the accrediting body inappropriately inserts itself into the internal affairs of the institutions it accredits… and does so in a way that forces homogeneity, and conversely stifles innovation and diversity, among law schools.”89

Interfering with University Governance. It is worthwhile to remember that accreditation is just one of the three hurdles that a school, whether prospective or established, generally must satisfy. The other two are “federal certification of financial and administrative capability” and “state licensing or approval to operate in a state.”90 In the course of licensing colleges, especially public colleges, states generally insist on various mechanisms such as Boards of Trustees or Regents to ensure that adequate oversight and consideration is given to public concerns. These “trustees are the ultimate fiduciaries of a college or university. Their out- side experience and perspective constitute an important check on the senior administrative insiders who to a great degree run both the universities and the accreditation agencies.”91

Unfortunately, the check on university administrators has been hampered as “accreditors have extended their reach in ways that inappropriately intrude upon governance and trustee oversight.” 92 Some examples:

  • “The Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC)… initiated in 2006 a review of leader- ship and board activities at the University of California… Far from promoting the public inter- est, accreditors forced the regents and chancellors to devote precious time, not to mention taxpayer dollars, responding to their meddling and inaccuracies.”93

  • “The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools… standards insist that the President—and not the board—is in charge when it comes to major pieces of the academic enterprise.”94•

  • “In a case involving Auburn University… The regional accreditor sanctioned the board in 2003 for meddling in administrators’ affairs and put the school on a one-year probation for what The Chronicle of Higher Education reported was ‘trustee meddling in the university’s administra- tion and for a lack of commitment to the accreditation process.’ The sanction was lifted only after three outside investigators found no basis for the penalty and trustees signed a personal statement of commitment to the accreditation process.”95

These examples raise the important question of why “federally approved accreditors—who, almost without exception, are university administrators and faculty members whose interests may conflict with those of engaged trustees—have the power to second-guess boards, boards that have the ultimate legal responsibility for higher education governance?”96 To be sure, it is sometimes true that trustees become engaged in day-to-day operations of an institution in a manner that potentially undermines institutional improvement. Nonetheless, on the whole trustees play a potentially important and useful role of oversee- ing institutional affairs, and acts that weaken their ultimate authority are potentially quite worrisome.

For these reasons, we believe that the accreditation system has performed in less than a satisfactory fashion in terms of maintaining institutional autonomy in the most recent period.

Evaluation: Maintain Independence/Autonomy of Colleges. Prior to the federal government’s involve- ment in the financing of higher education, accreditation was completely voluntary and had no regulatory- like powers over institutions. Before 1952, accreditation was therefore exceptional in preserving institutional autonomy. Between 1952 and the beginning of the accountability and assessment movement in 1985, accreditation continued to perform satisfactorily in this function, as the agencies imposed few demands on


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