In recent weeks the topic of accreditation—normally a dense and inscrutable process at best—has garnered a remarkable level of attention. While critiques of this system have historically been rather common, the recent spate of legislation introduced at the state level seeking to challenge the national (formerly regional) accreditors is unprecedented. Perhaps as a response to these provocations, the leaders of two national accreditors wrote op-eds in Inside Higher Ed to provide an affirmative view of the role their agencies play in regulating higher education. They assert that accreditors are bulwarks protecting academic freedom and institutional autonomy. Let’s examine these claims.
Last fall, when Hamline University’s administration punished Erika López Prater for showing paintings of the prophet Muhammad to her art history class, PEN America called it “one of the most egregious violations of academic freedom in recent memory.” Where is Hamline’s accreditor, the Higher Learning Commission, on this issue? The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression has filed a complaint with HLC, but months later, the accreditor has taken no public action to ensure that Hamline respects the norms of academic freedom.
Did the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges act when Sam Joeckel claimed he was fired from Palm Beach Atlantic University for discussing racial justice during his English class? Joeckel has not been reinstated, and the university has not been placed on probation.
How about the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities? How could it find Linfield University “substantially” in compliance with its standards of accreditation after Linfield terminated tenured English professor Daniel Pollack-Pelzner, arguably for publicly sharing allegations of sexual misconduct and antisemitism involving trustees and administrators? The American Association of University Professors’ investigation found that Linfield had violated both Pollack-Pelzner’s academic freedom and the institution’s own internal regulations, yet no lasting action was taken by its accreditor.
I could continue to list examples, but my point ought to be clear: if protecting academic freedom is central to the accreditors’ missions, then at best their oversight is toothless, and at worst their inaction encourages bad actors.
Just as interesting is how the two authors approach the issue of institutional governance. Lawrence Schall, president of the New England Commission of Higher Education, notes that “the responsibility for the development of—and the academic freedom to deliver—academic programs rests squarely with the faculty, not the president, not the governing board and absolutely not the government.” Jamienne Studley, president of the WASC Senior College and University Commission, takes a similar tack with her view that accreditors must protect institutions from “external forces,” including “governing boards when they act beyond their charge, or state or federal executives or legislatures, or parents or donors.” When these forces threaten the core principles of higher education, according to Studley, accreditors are there to act as impartial and expert “referees.” Notably absent from either of their op-eds is a proper understanding of, or indeed any reference to, shared governance.
The 1966 Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities—written and endorsed by the AAUP, the American Council on Education and the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges—captures the complex nature of higher education governance perfectly. It recognizes that the “inescapable interdependence among governing board, administration, faculty, students, and others” necessitates collaboration. Far from adversarial threats to a college’s autonomy, these groups are important stakeholders who ought to be heard rather than shunned. For example, contrary to Schall’s attempt to silo academic matters with the faculty alone, the report notes that the “relative emphasis to be given to the various elements of the educational and research program should involve participation of governing board, administration, and faculty prior to final decision.”
It is particularly disturbing to see Studley include governing boards—at least those she deems to be operating “beyond their charge”—among her list of “external forces,” which frames trustees as a contingent rather than a constituent part of higher education. This represents a fundamental misunderstanding of a board’s nature and purpose. The 1966 statement recognizes the board’s role as the “final institutional authority” with a “special obligation to ensure that the history of the college or university shall serve as a prelude and inspiration to the future.” The voluntary, lay nature of trustee governance allows boards to represent the institution as a whole rather than any individual constituency. It is this unique position that enables boards to act as guardians of their institution’s mission and mediators between stakeholders on and off campus. When operating under the leadership of informed, engaged trustees, boards serve to enrich the greatest strength of American higher education: its diversity. Attempts by accreditors to apply a singular vision of what higher education ought to be, rather than respect its plurality of values and structures, should be greeted with ultimate skepticism.
Unsurprisingly, there is an external actor Studley omits from her list: the accreditors themselves. These entities should react to obvious abuses on campus, as the massive public investment in higher education demands stronger oversight—particularly related to student outcomes, where accreditors have a sad record of failure. Accreditors need to redouble their efforts in ensuring an education of quality. This is more likely to happen if they approach institutional governance with a degree of humility stemming from the recognition that they are outsiders on campus, too often wielding power instead of insight. In this they violate the very principles of shared governance and institutional autonomy they claim to be upholding.
This article appeared in Inside Higher Ed on June 21, 2023.