Accreditors Are Urged to Take New Steps to Protect Academic Freedom

November 20, 2012

The Council for Higher Education Accreditation has joined the American Association of University Professors in urging accreditors to take steps to ensure that the protection of academic freedom is a central concern in their evaluation of higher-education institutions.

In an advisory statement issued on Tuesday, the council, which represents some 3,000 colleges and confers recognition on accrediting organizations, and the AAUP jointly argue that accreditors need to review their standards, policies, and procedures to ensure they give protections of academic freedom adequate consideration in judging the quality of institutions and programs.

In a news release issued alongside the document, Judith S. Eaton, president of CHEA, called the advisory statement "a response to concerns that academic freedom is increasingly challenged in today's environment and that accreditation can play an even more helpful role in meeting this challenge."

The advisory statement says it is important for accreditors to review how much weight they give to academic freedom because "the prospect of threat in today's highly charged political environment shows no promise of abatement." Such a review is timely, the advisory statement says, "because the phrase 'academic freedom' has become subject to promiscuous usage as, on occasion, institutions and faculty have sought to shelter actions or utterances under that rubric without regard to its meaning."

Despite such an assertion, Ms. Eaton said the statement was not a response to any specific incident and was not intended to suggest that any accreditors were remiss in protecting academic freedom, which many explicitly take into consideration in their standards. "It is not a statement about what people are not doing," said Ms. Eaton, who is a member of a joint committee on accreditation formed by the AAUP and her group.

Anita Levy, a senior program officer at the AAUP who served as a staff member for the joint committee, described the advisory statement in the news release as "designed to stimulate discussion of academic freedom among institutions, faculty, and accrediting organizations."

Among its recommendations, the joint statement says that accrediting organizations should "emphasize the principle of academic freedom in the context of accreditation review, stressing its fundamental meaning and essential value." It also says such organizations should "focus on challenges to academic freedom" at accrediting meetings and workshops, and explore developing partnerships among themselves "to concentrate additional attention on academic freedom and further secure the commitment of the entire accreditation community."