The Inmates Running the Asylum?
strings, conditions, reporting requirements and other forms of accountability that inevitably accom- pany appropriations.”188
Many in the academy would prefer to maintain the status quo, but the status quo is unsustainable. “The assumption that pressures for change and accountability were motivated solely by partisan politics and would quickly fade with a new party coming to power has proved a very oversimplified view.”189 Accountability is a bipartisan issue. The public simply will not continue to provide billions of dollars without an adequate answer to the question of what we are getting in return. This is the fundamental driving force behind the accountability movement, and it is extremely powerful. Even the lead lobbyist for colleges felt “compelled to send a wake-up call to campus executives… we should expect college accreditation to come under significant scrutiny.”190
Nothing that Resembles Accreditation Can Succeed Given that a better mechanism of providing quality assurance likely will be installed, we can ask whether the existing system could be reformed or whether an entirely new system should be developed. Our analysis leads us to the conclusion that the current system cannot be reformed to provide the level of quality assurance that is necessary, for the reasons discussed below.
Accreditation Is Structured for Quality Improvement Rather than Quality Assurance Purposes. Accreditation was originally designed to pursue institutional purposes, but not public ones. The public purposes were added to its list of responsibilities haphazardly, and without changing nearly anything else about the system. There remains a high degree of collegiality in the accreditation system, as reviews are still primarily conducted by industry insiders and performed in a fashion that largely mimics that of their predecessors. It would be truly amazing if a system designed to facilitate quality improvement through peer review also happened to be able to provide the public’s accountability needs without fundamentally altering its mechanisms and/or processes. As one former accreditor stated, for accreditation to provide adequate quality assurance, it “will need to integrate into its work aspects of all of the other accountabil- ity programs as well as become a respected source of comparative consumer information about the qual- ity of learning in colleges and universities. This is, to put it mildly, a fairly radical reconceptualization of how accreditation works.”191
The most glaring example of how the system is biased toward the improvement role is the peer review process. The accreditation process involves a team of accreditors and volunteers reviewing numerous aspects of an institution, and the team relies heavily on a self-study from the institution itself. This may be effective if the goal is merely to provide constructive criticism and suggestions for improvement. How- ever, if the goal is to provide quality assurance for the public, this is much less appropriate. Not only are colleges likely to attempt to hide problems when they are being judged rather than advised, but the peer review process is also subject to a significant conflict of interest. The review “teams cannot reasonably be expected to be independent arbiters of quality. Knowing that their own institutions will undergo accred- iting review, there is a tacit interest in keeping standards low.”192
In addition to the conflict of interest, there is a question of competence. Accreditors are tasked with providing assurances of college quality, yet “the experience of working in the academy, in itself, is deemed sufficient preparation for review team members to be able to ‘recognize quality.’”193 In part because of this, university leaders occasionally complain that “there are people out there who are making judg- ments on institutions without being well-prepared.”194 Others believe that “the great weakness in college