Accreditation and Faculty

Brian Taylor

April 19, 2012

For most people in or out of academe, accreditation is arcane and boring. That it has not even captured the imagination of faculty members should come as no surprise.

Although the standards published by accrediting bodies put faculty issues like curriculum and governance clearly on the screen, those same standards say very little about faculty roles and make only vague references to "faculty involvement."

But it's time for college and university faculty to start paying attention to this seemingly dry issue. Further, it's time they joined the effort by administrators and accreditors to resist the government's increasing intrusion into accreditation. That intrusion endangers both academic freedom and the unique American system of separation of the academy from the state.

Over the past 50 years, we have universalized American higher education so as to make it available to more people than ever before. But a major result of that has been expanding government control, which has only grown in intensity lately as state and federal governments have demanded that accreditors pay more attention to institutional accountability. Congress and the U.S. Department of Education are spelling out the meaning of all sorts of educational issues—even matters as basic as what constitutes a three-credit course.

Many faculty members have only a vague idea of the extent of government intrusion into academic life. Some refuse to believe that it will get worse, while others see the endless new rules as some campus administrative scheme to control their behavior.

I made that same pitch for years as a faculty member and administrator on several campuses. When I was a provost, I made it a point of my annual address to tell faculty members that they would have a better understanding about their own university, and even their own discipline, if they knew what was going on in the wider world of higher education. I am not aware that my words had any impact whatsoever. Academics were understandably focused on their research and teaching.

I'm making that pitch again because it's vital that we involve faculty members in academe's voluntary accredition process now that it is under increasing threat. So how do we involve them?

First, more faculty members should participate in the routines and procedures of accreditation practices. Accrediting bodies make it clear that faculty participation is expected and valuable in the self-studies that institutions do, though it is fair to say that on many campuses the self-study is done mostly by the administration and the institutional-research office.

Care should be taken to assure that the professional campus politicians on the faculty do not dominate the self-study committees or use the process to engage campus political issues. Instead, seek out those special teachers and scholars who will see in the masses of data and words being compiled that the university is a complex phenomenon with many interests to satisfy. A few will emerge sensitive to the specific demands by accreditors that are the result of government requirements. Some will even conclude that a university does, after all, need a president, provost, deans, fiscal officers, and student-life and physical-plant staff.

Besides the self-study process, more faculty members should participate on the visiting teams sent to evaluate peer institutions as part of the accreditation process. And faculty voices are also essential for accreditors facing the explosion in new educational technologies and learning styles.

But the value of faculty involvement in accreditation is not just institutional. Academic leaders have failed to make clear to the faculty the role that accreditation plays, not just in quality assurance but in the preservation of a self-governed system of higher education—a unique American phenomenon. Most countries have a centralized education ministry. In the United States, a voluntary, responsible, and participatory accreditation system is the major tool we have to preserve, in the face of sweeping societal and political changes, such core values as academic freedom and institutional independence.

We need strategic alliances between faculty members (and their disciplinary or other professional associations) and the major national associations that represent the higher-education enterprise. This is not about teaching loads, research opportunities, parking, office space, salaries, or benefits. This is about jointly making the case for our enterprise as a national treasure.

With a strategic alliance, the accreditation community could use the annual and regional meetings of scholarly societies to spread the gospel of what independent voluntary accreditation means to American higher education and to academics as teachers and scholars. This doesn't have to be complicated: The message could be sent via panel discussions or convention displays.

Two positive consequences would develop from greater faculty engagement in accreditation—one political, the other educational. Support for voluntary accreditation among the entire academic community would make for a potent political force to resist unfriendly government efforts to control academic programs and research. Faculty members could develop amongst their own groups the leadership to speak for accreditation for their own interests as well as the public interest. A faculty more engaged with the accreditation process would be more aware of how excellence throughout a campus is as vital as excellence in their own departments.

Accreditation is essential to sustain the quality and integrity of American higher education. And that voluntary system is under threat. Should not the most vital element of our enterprise—the faculty—be made an integral part of the drive to defend it?

Milton Greenberg is professor emeritus of government at American University, where he served as provost and interim president.