The Accreditation wars: Where are the faculty?


Inside Higher Ed has since its creation some years ago earned a largely justified reputation as a site more hospitable to views outside of the educational establishment and, in particular, views reflecting faculty experiences than other media covering higher education.  Therefore it was disappointing this morning to read Doug Lederman’s lengthy article on debates over accreditation.  It’s not so much that the article is wrong; by and large it fairly recounted the history of accreditation and some of the criticisms made against it by political leaders and other outsiders, concluding that none of these critics offers a reasonable substitute.  It’s what was absent from the piece that was most striking: the faculty.

Lederman cites and sometimes quotes leaders of independent foundations, politicians (lots of them), journalists, and former accrediting commission leaders, but somehow in a major piece on the accreditation of higher education nowhere do we see represented any input from, well, educators!  The controversy over the accreditation fight at City College of San Francisco (CCSF), about which I’ve posted extensively on this blog, gets a mention, of course, but nowhere do we hear from representatives of the organizations, AFT 2121, the CCSF faculty union, and its parent, the California Federation of Teachers, that have done the most to expose the failures of the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC).  Indeed, no unions or professional associations representing faculty, including the AAUP, are heard from at all.  Neither are any disciplinary associations.  And while I will be among the first to complain that faculty “representatives” on accrediting commissions are not always actually representative of the faculty, it still might have been nice to learn what they think.  In fact, there is not a single quote and not a single reference to a single faculty member at all in the entire article!

Instead, Lederman recounts the criticisms, allegedly from both “right” and “left,” of accreditation coming from politicians, the Lumina and Gates Foundations, and others who complain that accreditors are both “barriers to innovation” and don’t adequately enforce measures that supposedly will ensure “student success” and an “educated workforce.”  He correctly notes the continuity between the Bush administration’s push, via the infamous Spellings Commission, for more “outcomes assessment” and the pressure from the Obama administration, and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in particular, for greater “accountability.”

But the fact is that confining the story to these sorts of critiques leaves much of the tale untold.  For alongside this sort of outside political criticism there is discernible and growing, if still mainly inchoate, discontent among faculty members at all sorts of institutions, from community colleges to elite research institutions, with the accreditation process.  And that discontent, it should be stressed, is in good measure directed at the accreditors’ accommodation to precisely the sort of demands made by critics of the process like Spellings and Duncan, a point that I made in a recent post to this blog.

What are the main points made by faculty critics of accreditation?  I can’t speak for everyone — or, for that matter, even for the AAUP — on this, but here are what I think are the main issues that  increasingly trouble faculty members:

Accreditation Has Become Too Burdensome

This is a particular concern at smaller institutions, where the accreditation process can seem to take over everything as faculty are mobilized by their administrations to provide ever more “evidence” of conformity to ever-increasing numbers of accreditation “standards.”  But the burden is a problem even at larger institutions and in some places — and I certainly know this from my own experience — accreditation seems to be almost a non-stop process.  At the same time, faculty members rightly ask what they get out of it other than more busywork and more reporting of minutiae?  Lederman acknowledges the emergence of such concerns at elite institutions, but I am certain that such sentiments are widespread across all of higher education, perhaps even more among faculty at teaching institutions and community colleges.

The Focus on “Outcomes” and “Assessment” is Unsubstantiated

Lederman rightly notes that the emphasis on outcomes and assessments that began with the Spellings Commission continues to this day and that accrediting agencies have increasingly sought to accommodate demands for such emphasis.  But Lederman fails to note the growing dissatisfaction with the “assessment agenda” bubbling below the surface among the faculty.  The great irony, of course, is that demands for “assessment” fail utterly to recognize that the sorts of metrics demanded ever more frequently by accreditors have themselves never been adequately assessed.  As Aaron Barlow informed us on this blog, a recent op-ed piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Erik Gilbert, associate dean of the Graduate School at Arkansas State University and a professor of history, asked: “Does Assessment Make Colleges Better? Who Knows?”  Gilbert concluded: “It’s time for us to demand that the accreditors who are driving assessment provide evidence that it offers benefits commensurate with the expense that goes into it. We should no longer accept on faith or intuition that learning-outcomes assessment has positive and consequential effects on our institutions — or students.”

Moreover, as I wrote back in July,

the emphasis on supposed “outcomes” and, especially, “outcomes assessment” is so pervasive as to have overwhelmed legitimate concern about inputs.  Some accreditation agencies, for instance, would have us believe that it doesn’t matter how many books a college library has, only how much the library is patronized, even if that patronage is dominated by those who use the library computers to watch movies or correspond via social media or even those who merely patronize the library’s Starbucks outlet (as at my own university).

Perhaps Duncan and the accreditors might be well advised to consider whether graduation rates — or for that matter any other “measure of student success” — may in good measure depend on how much of the institution’s “inputs” are devoted to instruction?  As Howard Bunsis and Rudy Fichtenbaum have frequently asked, would it be so unreasonable to require that any accredited teaching institution devote at least half of its budget to instruction?  (The average now is well below that and dropping rapidly, at some teaching institutions as low as 30%.)  The bottom line in higher education, as elsewhere, is often that you get what you pay for.  To be sure, efficiency and effectiveness do not solely depend on money, but the fact is that by and large the most successful institutions are the ones with the greatest resources.

Accreditors Fail to Address Violations of Academic Freedom and Shared Governance

Once upon a time it was conceivable that an institution that found itself on the AAUP’s censure list might hear from its accrediting agency about that.  Apparently, no more, or at least not very often.  Back in the 1960s after St. John’s University fired a number of professors and suppressed a faculty strike, the AAUP placed its board on the censure list.  And then the accrediting agency stepped in, threatening to withdraw accreditation if the university did not negotiate its removal from the list with the AAUP.  That took place, the dismissed faculty members were compensated, and the AAUP won election as the collective bargaining agent for the St. John’s faculty.  Flash forward to today.  Have accreditors protested the mess at the University of Illinios at Urbana-Champaign that has emerged in the wake of the dismissal of Steven Salaita and the consequent censure by the AAUP?  Maybe they will, but don’t hold your breath.  And where were the accreditors when the Wisconsin Legislature and Governor eviscerated the budget of the University of Wisconsin system and in the process eviscerated tenure (and inevitably academic freedom as well)?

In 2012, the Council on Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) and the AAUP released an advisory statement on Accreditation and Academic Freedom.  The statement asked: “To what extent are accrediting organizations alert to the importance of academic freedom? To what extent do their standards give adequate guidance on the subject and capture the significance of institutional decision making and the faculty’s role in that process? To what extent are these standards realized in application, by periodic inspection and, particularly, on occasions when major controversies erupt? Need more be done?”  So far, these questions remain largely unanswered by the accrediting agencies, but I can certainly provide an answer to the final question.  It is a resounding “YES!”

Accreditors Fail to Address Either Administrative Bloat or the Emergence of a Two-Tier Faculty

As I wrote in my previous post on “Arne Duncan, Accreditation, and ‘Barking Watchdogs’,”

What is the point of developing “learning outcomes,” when most of the faculty are hired on a part-time temporary basis and are not even informed of those expected “outcomes,” much less involved in developing them?  “Schools should be rewarded for doing the right thing – taking in students who are struggling and helping them succeed,” claims Duncan.  But how are we to expect this to happen when class sizes soar, fewer and fewer full-time faculty are available to provide meaningful advising, and resources are increasingly directed from instruction to rec centers, competitive athletics, and, especially, the ever metastasizing ranks of management personnel?

In fact, one of the most remarkable aspects of the CCSF controversy was ACCJC’s bizarre contention that the college had “too few administrators,” too much shared governance, and too many tenure-track faculty!  To be sure, ACCJC is, as its critics repeatedly pointed out, a “rogue” accreditor, but the fact is that when accrediting teams come to campus they rarely inquire about how much teaching is done by dedicated full-time faculty and how much by part-time hires, who are often compelled to teach at multiple institutions just to make ends meet.  I do not doubt that most of those teachers are dedicated and talented — they would sure have to be to survive under such abysmal conditions — but don’t the accreditation agencies at the least wonder about the “outcomes” associated with such an approach to staffing?  And don’t they have any ethical or moral sense about the shameful exploitation of highly qualified professionals?

The Accreditation Agencies Don’t Represent Faculty

In a fruitful exchange I had with AAUP contingent activist Joe Berry in the comments section of a recent post, Joe noted that “that most faculty (the contingent majority) do not see the present system as staffed or operated by ‘colleagues’, especially since contingents are never on evaluation teams presently and some teams recently have hardly any (even zero) faculty on them at all anymore.”  He’s right, but it’s not only contingent faculty.  The fact is that faculty representation on accrediting agency visiting teams and even more on accrediting agency boards is minimal, even for those with tenure.  But not only is it minimal, it’s not representative.  Accrediting agencies generally (but not always) recruit faculty participants by soliciting recommendations from administrators.  Those recommendations are, I am sure, often wise ones, but too frequently they reward toadies and sycophants, or at least those who embrace the increasingly dysfunctional “reform agenda” about which their colleagues are raising questions.  And in no way can such a process be considered representative.

In conclusion, as I noted in my previous post:  “I agree with [Arne] Duncan that accreditation agencies should be better ‘watchdogs.’  We disagree, however, at whom and what they should bark.  Duncan would have them snap at the letter carrier and the delivery person but wag their tails at the burglars.  For the real scandal in the accreditation arena is the failure of most accreditors to challenge harmful institutional priorities and practices that erode genuine educational quality.”  And that, clearly, is the basic concern of increasing numbers of faculty members whose voices were absent from Lederman’s article.