With China on track to produce nearly double the number of STEM doctoral graduates as the US by 2025, it is worthwhile to reflect on the national importance of these fields. A nation’s security and economic prosperity rely largely on STEM capability. Indeed, much of the historical success of the industrialized West was owed to dominance in STEM. Through the production of experts and the development of new technologies, western universities have played a critical role in maintaining and extending this capability.
Given its national importance and demographic challenges, the gradual substitution of politics for merit within STEM education is deeply concerning. Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) loyalty oaths are now widely used to vet the political orthodoxy of academics. Certain faculty positions require a “commitment to anti-racist pedagogy.” Some institutions have even explicitly earmarked positions for particular races. For example, one announced that “The University has approved immediate searches for four faculty positions that were proposed by departments to increase the number of Black faculty.” These problems are well known—one excellent summary is John Sailer’s January 2023 article for the Free Press. However, little has been said about the politicization of STEM accreditation.
American colleges and universities are accredited regionally by organizations that consider the institution as a whole. In addition, particular programs are accredited by disciplinary accrediting bodies. In STEM, one of the most significant accreditors is ABET, which accredits programs in science, computing, and engineering. Historically, ABET has focused on the technical quality of programs. This might include having a sufficient number of faculty or adequate academic advising, for example. Recently, ABET has broadened its focus to include political activism.
[Related: “Paranoia Strikes Deep”]
In 2020, ABET released a statement praising the Black Lives Matter movement and condemning “systemic racism.” This statement implicitly accepts the rather controversial and partisan premise that the US is inherently racist. ABET has also been revising its accreditation criteria to incorporate DEI principles. The accreditation criteria are important because they are the standards that programs must meet in order to be accredited. If a program doesn’t meet the criteria, now including DEI, then it risks losing accreditation. These changes are problematic for a number of reasons.
First, they undermine accountability within public colleges and universities. According to ABET, the push to incorporate DEI into the accreditation criteria is supported by the Big10+ deans of engineering. Surprisingly, some of these deans represent public institutions in deeply red states—Indiana’s Purdue University and the University of Nebraska, for example. The changes to accreditation criteria help to justify controversial DEI measures in a way that cannot be challenged by the public or legislators. After all, who would want to risk the accreditation of their programs?
Second, accreditation will become more susceptible to human bias and abuse. When a program is evaluated by ABET, the evaluation is completed by a small team of experts during a campus visit. The accreditation criteria are deliberately vague so that the team has wide latitude in interpreting and applying them. With the inclusion of DEI, activist teams may misuse this flexibility to further their own political goals.
[Related: “Litmus Tests for Nuclear Scientists”]
Lastly, the new criteria will not be applied uniformly. ABET accredits many programs within the US, but it also has a significant international footprint. Teams participating in international visits are expected to complete cultural awareness training and to conduct their work in a manner that is compatible with local cultural sensitivities. It’s hard to imagine how US-centric DEI criteria would be applied in, say, the Middle East.
So, what is the best way to depoliticize ABET and restore the primacy of merit in STEM? Just as the Chicago principles are helping to restore academic free speech, the Goldwater and Manhattan institutes have provided a much-needed blueprint for reining in DEI at public universities. However, it may be beneficial to extend this plan with measures specifically targeting politicized accreditors. In particular, state legislation is needed to prohibit the spending of public funds on such accreditors. This measure would accomplish two goals: First, accreditors like ABET would be put on notice that they must abstain from political activism. Second, the measure may give rise to apolitical, alternative accrediting bodies.
If reform efforts fail, we should expect a dismal future for STEM in the US. The Soviet experience with Lysenkoism should serve as a cautionary tale on mixing political ideology with the sciences. For the unfamiliar, Lysenkoism was an ideologically driven biological pseudoscience that is widely believed to have worsened famines that killed seven million people. Should American STEM be transformed into a similar political echo chamber run by DEI commissars? Or should true intellectual diversity be valued over diversity that is skin-deep?
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4 thoughts on “Can the US Afford to Politicize STEM Accreditation?”
Working in an international STEMM research institute I fear it’s already too late for many Universities to stop the woke DIE tsunami wrecking STEMM, not just in the USA but across the whole Anglophone world. But then that’s always been the aim of the ‘long march through the institutions’ and the Chinese ‘long-game’.
“Surprisingly, some of these deans represent public institutions in deeply red states—Indiana’s Purdue University and the University of Nebraska, for example. The changes to accreditation criteria help to justify controversial DEI measures in a way that cannot be challenged by the public or legislators. After all, who would want to risk the accreditation of their programs?”
This is what the Jennifer Keeton case really was about, and why I have been complaining about it for more than a decade now. See: https://www.foxnews.com/us/lawsuit-claims-college-ordered-student-to-alter-religious-views-on-homosexuality-or-be-dismissed
I don’t know about the consequences of losing ABET accreditation, but the issue in the Keeton case was that Augusta State had to violate her civil rights in order for the other students in the program to obtain professional licenses as graduation from an APA-accredited program is a prerequisite. Same thing with prospective lawyers graduating from an ABA-accredited law school. *Is* ABET accreditation required for licensure as an engineer?
If so, I suggest that Red States take the example of Osteopathic Medicine and re-write the state licensing laws to remove the requirement of an ABET-accredited program and replace that with some other form of accreditation. Accreditation by some state bureaucrat if necessary, although Betsy DeVos was working on alternative accrediting bodies, and that could be pursued on a regional basis.
It needs to be remembered that the Osteopaths (DOs) were not liked by the traditional medical doctors (MDs) and while it took them a century to accomplish it, what they did was go to each state legislature and get the state licensing laws rewritten so that a DO was (essentially) considered the same as a MD. What the Red States need to do is eliminate the power that these accrediting bodies have to impose the DIE garbage by eliminating the requirement that license applicants graduate from a program which they accredit.
So your Big-10 engineering school — which has an international reputation and an excellent reputation within your state — isn’t accredited anymore. Are the people who hire engineers going to stop hiring your graduates, particularly if it becomes widely known why it isn’t accredited anymore? I doubt it…
A letter of reference from Professor Jones that says that Johnny is competent to string powerlines or a letter from Professor Smith that says that Suzie is competent to design bridges is still going to mean what it always has — because the employers know who Professors Jones & Smith are. As to the ABET, not so much….
Some states do require graduates to have an ABET B.S. in order to sit for professional licensing exams. For example, Pennsylvania’s requirements for the Engineering exam can be found here: https://www.dos.pa.gov/ProfessionalLicensing/BoardsCommissions/EngineersLandSurveyorsandGeologists/Pages/Engineer-Guide.aspx
Excellent essay. Great work, Ben.