Accredited by Whom? And How? Some Thoughts about “Accreditation” in Relation to Christian Higher Education
What gives me the credibility to write about academic accreditation? First, for those not “in the know,” let me explain what “accreditation” means in contemporary higher education. In the United States (and I assume elsewhere) there exist many “accrediting” societies and associations that serve to give institutions of higher education a kind of “Good Housekeeping seal of approval.” An “accredited college” or “accredited university” is one that has that seal of approval from a nationally recognized accrediting society or association. Some of these are regional and some are professional. Many institutions of higher education seek and (usually) receive more than one “accreditation.”
For example, in the U.S. colleges and universities usually seek accreditation from their regional accrediting society. An example of such is the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools recently renamed The Higher Learning Commission. Each U.S region has one major such accrediting society or association. What gives them so much influence and power? Why is accreditation from one of these so important? I’ll come back to that question.
There are also professional accrediting societies and associations. For example, the Association of Theological Schools is the primary one for seminaries and divinity schools. Any seminary or divinity school that wants to be recognized as academically sound and serious seeks accreditation from the ATS. Virtually every profession has such an accrediting society or association.
So, for example, a university will seek accreditation (seal of approval) from its regional accrediting society or association and each academic unit within the university will seek accreditation from its professional society or association.
Why? Why is accreditation important and so highly valued and sought after? (This question is important to ask and answer because much energy and many resources are put into gaining and keeping these accreditations.) The answer is twofold.
First, being accredited by a widely and highly regarded accrediting society or association gives the institution or academic unit public credibility. For example, if a student graduates from a non-accredited institution of higher education he or she may find it difficult to get into a graduate school. He or she may also find it difficult to find a job in his or her field. Colleges and universities highlight their accreditations in their publicities.
Second, being accredited by a widely and highly regarded accrediting society or association gives the institution or academic unit ability to gain financial grants and awards and even government subsidized loans for students. Without such accreditation the institution may find it difficult to survive financially. Many, perhaps most, of these accrediting societies, associations and agencies are themselves accredited by the U.S. Department of Education which holds the purse strings, as it were, for much of the operating funds colleges and universities depend on.
*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*
What gives me the credibility to speak about this subject? Well, I have been a full time faculty member of three Christian universities—all regionally accredited—for almost forty years. In each one of those I was involved on some level with “re-accreditation”—the process by which an institution of higher education applies for renewal of its accreditation. I have served on many committees and task forces related to renewal of accreditation processes. I have attended meetings of the accrediting societies and agencies. I have sat in on numerous faculty meetings the main purpose of which was to educate us about accreditation and gain our support and help in receiving renewal of accreditation—both from regional accreditation agencies, associations, societies and from professional ones. I have personally written large portions of “self-study reports” for accreditation societies, agencies and associations. I have met with “site teams” sent by accrediting societies, agencies and associations to determine whether a university where I served was worthy of renewal of accreditation.
I can tell you first hand that these are extremely tense times at any college or university. These times come around about every decade. (It may be more or less often depending on many factors.) A great deal of time and energy is spent by the administration and faculty on trying to read the minds of the accreditors. What exactly do they want? What will cause them to cite the college or university with one or more demerits (which then have to be cleared up)? Based on my many years of experience with this little-known (outside of academia) process I can confidently say that it has become over the years much more complicated and burdensome.
It is also becoming much more intrusive and controlling.
Years ago, and not that long ago, the “mantra” of almost all accrediting agencies, societies and associations was “We don’t tell you what to do but only measure whether you are doing what you say you do.” (Of course that was said in various ways; but that is the gist of it.) I still hear that from some accreditors, but I no longer believe it. My firsthand experience with some accrediting agencies, societies and associations is that they seek to hold out accreditation or renewal of accreditation as the proverbial carrot on a stick to manipulate institutions of higher education to embrace their values.
What do I mean by “values?” One clear, undeniable example is “measurable outcomes.” To put it colloquially, the bean counter mentality has taken over. Every program, every course is now supposed to have measurable outcomes for students. This has created havoc, of course, with the liberal arts and is one reason, I believe, for the struggles colleges and universities in the U.S. are having over sustaining liberal arts education. How, for example, does one measure wisdom, maturity, acumen, insight, and appreciation of beauty (broadly defined) numerically? The value here is instrumentalism—the belief that education is primarily about functionality, skill, productivity, problem solving.
But my main concern is with and about the intrusiveness of some accrediting societies, agencies, and associations with regard to social engineering and belief-systems including especially ethics. A very high value is placed on, for example, diversity—a value that has become increasingly broader and more encompassing. Some accrediting societies, agencies, associations will give demerits to an institution of higher education that does not meet its standards of diversity. And those standards are constantly shifting and changing. A college or university that does not actually achieve the desired level of diversity may find itself given a limited renewal of accreditation—even if it can demonstrate that it has done all in its ability to recruit and hire minorities and women.
Even more concerning to me, however, is the emphasis in accreditation on flexibility and permissiveness in ethics (especially sexual ethics). For the most part, accreditors do not care what an institution’s beliefs are, so long as they are not oppressive of any group of people. However, increasingly, some accrediting agencies, associations, and societies do care about institutions’ ethical standards of conduct for faculty, staff and students. Some accreditors are beginning to use strong arm tactics to force Christian institutions of higher education to lower their ethical standards because they are considered unjust and oppressive to certain kinds of people.
I believe a day is coming (call me Chicken Little if you wish) when conservative Christian institutions of higher education will find it impossible to be accredited by some of these regional and national professional accrediting agencies, societies and associations (recognized by the Department of Education) AND hold to their traditional ethical standards even internally. This pressure is already being felt by many Christian institutions of higher education.
I believe the mantra I quoted above is a lie; some accrediting associations, societies, agencies recognized by the U.S. Department of Education do attempt to manipulate institutions of higher education that seek accreditation or renewal of such into conforming to values that may be alien to their own reasons for existence.
As our society, including our government, become increasingly secular and even hostile to true, authentic Christianity, institutions that aspire to embody true, authentic Christianity may find it necessary to develop their own accrediting societies, agencies, and associations. Of course, this is already the case with the Association for Biblical Higher Education (formerly the Accrediting Association for Bible Colleges). This accrediting society, however, exists primarily for Bible colleges. Research universities and Christian liberal arts colleges may need to create a new entity for themselves that is not hostile to, but friendly toward, biblical values, ethics, and lifestyle. And they may need to prepare to discover and even create funding streams independent of the government and most fund-granting foundations.
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