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An Analysis of Higher Education Accreditation - page 22 / 60





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The Inmates Running the Asylum?

institutions and served as a buffer from governmental interference in their affairs. Since 1985 though, accreditors have too often utilized its position as gatekeeper to exert regulatory-like power over institutions to impose non-education related mandates, reducing institutional autonomy. Accreditation must be judged unsatisfactory for its negative role in terms of maintaining institutional autonomy in the post-1985 era.

It is worthwhile to note that these issues contribute to a brewing legal battle, as accreditors have essen- tially been given governmental power but are not currently subject to restrictions on their actions. As Jef- frey C. Martin points out, “A serious First Amendment problem arises in recognizing an agency and giving it authority over federal student aid eligibility that it then uses to infringe an institution’s academic freedom.” He argues that the “changes to accreditation have made it more likely “that the decisions of accrediting agencies constitute ‘state action’ subject to constitutional strictures.”97




1952–1985 1985–present

Maintenance of Independence/ Autonomy

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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

Maintain Diversity of Institutions and Missions Another traditional source of strength for American higher education has been the diversity in both the types of institutions and their missions. Having options between vocational or liberal arts schools, residen- tial or commuter institutions, faith-based and non-religious colleges and a plethora of other differences both gives the student more choices about what type of education to pursue, and also allows the schools to develop the different practices and policies that allow them to more capably accomplish their missions.

Accreditation’s performance on this dimension mirrors that of the autonomy dimension, and for the same reasons. In the earlier eras, accreditors did not have much leverage over colleges, since the system was entirely voluntary. They were given some power in the 1952 to 1985 era, but for the most part did not use it, as they still viewed their primary role as fostering quality improvement. As pressure was brought to focus on quality assurance, accreditation took a stronger regulatory stance, and some accred- itors have used their power to curtail diversity among institutions.

While homogenization is arguably not the goal of accreditor actions, it is nonetheless the outcome as “some accrediting associations have adopted biased and intrusive review criteria that infringe upon insti- tutional autonomy and self-governance. The ultimate result has been the homogenization of American higher education.”98 Colleges with alternative missions can be punished for being different. Take, for instance, Thomas Aquinas College:

[The college] was threatened with a loss of accreditation due to the fact that its avowedly Catholic, traditional orientation had no room for the multicultural courses that its accreditor, the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, was prescribing at the time (1992). The ‘Great Books’ curriculum at Thomas Aquinas was the very key to


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