The Damage That Accreditors Do

SACS.jpeg

If I were asked to name the ten organizations most adversely impacting
Americans – I would undoubtedly think of a few terrorist groups like al-Qaeda
or criminal elements like Russian or Italian Mafia crime families, but also on
my list, right below the quasi-corrupt NCAA that exploits young athletes to
profit and entertain adults, might be the Commission on Colleges of the
Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, hereafter SACS. Actually, SACS is
one of a half dozen regional accrediting bodies whose decisions can determine
whether a college exists or not, and most of what I say about SACS could be
said about other regional accrediting groups, such as the Higher Learning
Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, or about
subject accrediting groups like the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools
of Business, the American Bar Association, or the National Council for the
Accreditation of Teacher Education. 

Why are groups like SACS not merely ineffective, inefficient, or
wasteful, but also harmful and very damaging? These groups originally were
information and consumer protection devices, like Underwriters Laboratories,
useful groups certifying whether a school was qualitatively reasonably good, not
a diploma mill. They were voluntary associations designed to sort out the good
for bad, and to promote best practices.

What went wrong? Let me enumerate at least ten problems with
accreditation today:

  1. They provide almost
    no useful consumer information. As it operates today, accreditation is like
    pregnancy -you are, or you are not. There are no gradations of quality. All
    grades are the equivalent of either “A” or “F”, and failures are very rare;
  2. They are riddled
    with conflicts of interest -almost the entire SACS higher education board, for
    example, is made up of individuals affiliated with SAC members. A school is
    evaluated by personnel from other nearby SACS schools, perhaps ones that only
    last year your school was evaluating. You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours;
  3. Accordingly, almost
    no significant-sized school has been put out of business for quality reasons;
  4. SACS, and perhaps
    other accrediting groups, actually discriminate against excellence; it has
    threatened actions against the University of Virginia and the University of
    Florida, because it did not like the fact that the political process and state
    laws played a role in university governance (in exchange for hundreds of
    millions of dollars of subsidy), but have issued no such academic fatwas
    against, say, Norfolk State University (four-year graduation rate 14 percent)
    or Florida Atlantic University (four-year graduation rate 17 percent); Virginia
    and Florida are ranked by
    Forbes as
    the first and seventh best public universities in America;
  5. Accreditation
    reports are completely non-transparent -usually they are not released to the
    public, despite the fact they often contain interesting critical comments about
    the schools–the public only gets the “bottom line” positive re-accreditation;
  6. Historically,
    schools have been evaluated more on inputs rather than on outcomes;
  7. Non-academic, even
    racialist criteria are sometimes applied -the American Bar Association, which
    accredits law schools, has reportedly pressured some of them regarding the
    composition of students or faculty because they did not like the skin
    coloration of those groups, even though the requested (required?) personnel
    changes might actually lower perceived academic quality;
  8. They have served as
    barriers to competition; Dana College in Nebraska, for example, was put out of
    business by the Higher Learning Commission because it was being bought by a
    for-profit operator; getting accreditation is costly and keeps some innovative new
    entrants from offering services to the public;
     
  9. Increasingly,
    accrediting agencies are subjected to political control or pressure; President
    Obama in his State of the Union put schools on “notice” that they would be in
    trouble (presumably via threats to accreditation) if they raised tuition fees
    more than what Obama or the Education Department  regards as desirable, promoting more
    undesirable over-centralization of American higher education;
  10. The preparation and
    adherence to accreditation standards takes lots of resources and time, which
    would be worth it if the process were useful, but currently is mostly a
    monumental waste of money.

Let me elaborate on SACS’ attacks on the universities of
Virginia and Florida. At the University of Virginia, the Board of Visitors, the
legally constituted supreme governing group, determined that Teresa Sullivan
was not meeting expectations, and fired her. After a campus uproar, they
rescinded the action. The campus community liked Sullivan, and was furious that
the Visitors who hired her had determined she was not aggressively fulfilling
their hopes regarding new educational innovations.  

SACS warned UVA that it had violated two of its 44 pages of rules and
regulations. For example, on page 31 of its Principles of Accreditation, SACS
requires “the institution publishes policies on the responsibility and
authority of faculty in academic and governance matters (faculty role in
governance).” Since the Board did not ask the faculty’s permission to fire her,
the standard was violated. The State of Virginia, going back to Thomas
Jefferson, has asserted both control and support of the University. The law of
the Commonwealth of Virginia gives the Visitors the right and obligation to
select the top leader. SACS is saying, no, the faculty has presumptive veto
power over board “governance” decisions. (Remember the late Bill Buckley’s
comment that he rather be governed by the first 100 names in the Boston
telephone directory than the faculty of Harvard College).

The arrogance, the contempt for external accountability is appalling. In
the Florida case, Governor Rick Scott urged University of Florida president
Bernie Machen to rescind his resignation; earlier he had urged the President of
Florida A and M to resign. SACS said that is unacceptable. Scott actually did
nothing except express his opinion, but SACS apparently believe it is the duty
of governors, governing boards, and taxpayers to provide buckets of money to
schools but have virtually no input beyond that. Isn’t it time that SACS itself
be “warned” -or “dis-accredited?”

Richard Vedder

Richard Vedder teaches at Ohio University and is the author of "Restoring the Promise: American Higher Education Today."

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