As I was writing Abelard to Apple, I became increasingly skeptical that accreditors could get it together. I suppose there is an argument to be made that the federal and state governments need a rudimentary ability to separate clearly reputable educational institutions from store-front operations. That was the original motivation for the current system of accreditation, but the accreditation industry wants so so much more.
The industry wants to measure quality, for example. And if — as is almost always the case — your institution comes up a little short, they are happy to sell you quality improvement consulting services. It’s a case of mission creep run amok. Accreditation when stripped to its core mission is costly, intrusive, and largely ineffective. Highly regarded and and influential undergraduate programs are nudged toward the mean. Clearly ineffective and dishonestly marketed for-profit programs are rubbers-stamped so that they can offer federal aid to their students.
The case I make in A2A is that the very idea of accreditation is based on a world view in which higher education is like manufacturing. In this view, universities are like factories and accreditors are the quality control department.
Every time I see another incursion by accreditors into a space beyond their core mission, alarms go off. So when I I saw this statement by AAUP and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation that ties accreditation to academic freedom (and therefore tenure) I came out my chair.
Let’s imagine a best-case outcome for this exercise in mission creeep:
- accrediting teams will get to evaluate processes that exist to protect academic freedom
- negative tenure decisions will be subject to review
- there will be pressure to adopt proactive rules that guarantee the outcome of decisions that are best made on a case-by-case basis
- there will be lots of expensive documentation requirements
- everyone will figure out how to work around the system.
The key AAUP/CHEA proposal is:
Affirm the role that accreditation play in the protection and advancement of academic freedom.
Beyond the traditional role of ensuring that academic governance is transparent and free from undue external and political influences, I think that accreditation’s role in the protection of academic freedom is marginal. If the “accreditation community” wants to think about the future, how about this:
How can we make our core mission relevant in a world that has moved beyond the regulated, paper-based quality control methods of the factory floor?