American higher education is failing. There are numerous reasons for this, such as the pervasive deconstructionism in the academy exampled by young rioters destroying monuments to the very heroes who in the past supported similar causes to those of our modern-day “revolutionaries.” Rarely discussed, however, are the negative externalitiesof careless accreditation.
Accreditors are supposed to assess the quality of higher education in the service of students, parents, and federal, state, and local governments. Without accreditation, students and schools are ineligible for government-supported funding, including student loans and grants. With few exceptions—most notably Hillsdale College—government support is essential to institutional survival. However, little is known about the internal functioning of these bureaucracies.
We Learned the Hard Way
Joshua Wolff suggests accreditation does not work because those in higher education—administrators, faculty, staff, and students—believe they can’t tell the truth. They fear retaliation. In our experience, Wolff’s concern is accurate. We were involved in preparing documents for accreditation when a seemingly minor internal issue spiraled out of control, revealing a disturbing pattern of deception and retaliation.
One of the faculty noticed ourCollege Accreditation Committee (Committee) had duplicated another college’s accreditation document without giving credit. The omission seemed problematic for a couple of reasons. First, the accrediting agency mandated that every college specify its unique goals, missions, characteristics, and details. For example, a small, regional university’s accreditation document will look quite different from that of a flagship university. Student populations and their needs differ across schools. Second, our Faculty Handbook required every student and employee “to abide by the highest standards of integrity and professional ethics … [and] report violations when they are known or reasonably suspected to have occurred.” Plagiarism is not a minor academic faux pas—it is a theft of merit and a failure of personal integrity. Plagiarism carries “death penalties” up to and including termination of employment for faculty and expulsion from school for students. Failure to report misconduct carries the same penalties.
A group of faculty members were concerned our school might be submitting a plagiarized document.We considered various exceptions, including that the document might be “boilerplate.” If so, it would not be plagiarized. Our concerns should have been amenable to a straightforward, in-house resolution. We asked our dean if the document needed attribution and told him we wanted to protect the college from potential, unnecessary accreditation problems. The dean said he’d look into it.
As the submission deadline approached, the dean continued to reassure us he was looking into it. Meanwhile, we considered dropping the matter, but the same question kept emerging: Why didn’t the dean and Committee either add a citation or explain why one wasn’t necessary?
Caught between silence and the University honor code, we decided to consult the University Research Ombudsman. While he initially characterized the absence of a citation as “troubling,” his subsequent written communication referred us to the Director of EEOC.
What could the enforcement of civil rights laws have to do with accreditation and possible plagiarism? We knew the answer was “nothing.” Nevertheless, we did as the Ombudsman suggested. Unsurprisingly, the EEOC officer promptly demurred, “Not my area of expertise.”
Just when we thought the situation couldn’t get any worse, it did. Our research identified yet another copied document we planned to submit as part of the accreditation package—of all things, it was a Code of Ethics. The only difference between the two versions was that the original had an extensive list of citations; the one to be submitted to the accreditor had none.
With no additional faculty review or input, our dean quietlysubmitted the accreditation package, including the two unattributed documents.
We Sought Accreditor Guidance
Since the accreditor’s public representatives touted ethical values, leadership, and the open exchange of ideas, we believed it would be willing to discuss our concerns, if only because its process, standards, and integrity were implicated.
We provided the documents, as well as a chronology of our internal efforts, and requested input from the accreditor.The accreditor promptly characterized the submission as a “complaint” and advised us they would:
… pay particular attention to the alleged standards violations within the context of the evidence presented in your complaint and the response from the school.
Designating the inquiry as a complaint turned what should have been a collegial dialogue into an adversarial proceeding. Although the faculty shared information with everyone from the department chair to our president and the accreditor functionaries, the accreditor meticulously screened the faculty out. The “complaint” was quickly terminated with a one-sentence statement that the college “has not violated accreditation standards.”
The secretive process was anathema to our academic training. So, we decided to look for answers through open records requests. As tenured professors, we thought we were entitled to them. The accreditor promptly invoked confidentiality, and the university simply ignored us. With the assistance of an attorney, we finally began to uncover the truth. Once information was sent to the university by the accreditor, it was subject to public records laws. Ultimately, the accreditor’s claim of confidentiality was just one more barrier to transparency.
We were stunned by what we found in the correspondence. After we filed our “complaint,” one of the Committee members wrotethe dean from which the first copied document was obtained:
We very much like [your documents] and have tweaked them a bit to fit our needs … our dean would like to get permission from you to use [them] in our reports without proper citation… (Emphasis in the original.)
A reply quickly followed, “That would be fine with us…”
The phrase “without proper citation” is the definition of plagiarism. Withpermissionto plagiarize in hand, our dean wrote the accreditor:
To make a long story short, we have both oral and written permission to use the documents in question without formal citation to the original school.
What would an instructor say if a student claimed,“I got permission from my friend to copy his paper without proper citation, so it’s okay”?
The Misconduct Got Worse
While administrators and accreditors claim to be honest and transparent,they were far from it whenit came to the faculty asking inconvenient questions. As Professor Wolff correctly observed, “faculty who openly share negative information risk retaliation”—in this case, the faculty who raised concerns about plagiarism suffered personal attacks, physical threats, punitive schedules and performance evaluations, and even attempts to fire tenured professors. The accreditor ignored these direct violations of university and accreditation standards.
Within a short time, the faculty who complained either “voluntarily” left or were forced out of the University. The message was clear: anyone who voiced an objection would face retaliation with the blessing of the accreditors.
Broad Support for Bad Behavior
The accreditor functionaries who participated were from many universities throughout the country. In fact, everyone involved in the accreditation process were Ph.Ds. and educators, each with decades of experience in higher education.They joined with our school administrators, and without the slightest qualm, manipulated data, ignored rules, and punished anyone who objected.
Students, parents, and members of the government look to accreditation for an honest assessment of the quality of education, but too often get secrecy and lies. Dishonesty destroys the foundations of our society: academe, law, science, and family life, to name a few. If accreditors and universities work together to silence faculty, conceal misconduct, and distort the truth, we are left wondering: what good is accreditation?