How accreditors brought us assessment

This summer I went to the annual meeting of the Association for the Assessment of Learning in Higher Education (AALHE) for the first time.  One of the panels I went to was a “meet the accreditors” event.  Three or four higher ups from several accreditors were there.  It was deeply depressing.  When someone in the audience, who I know is quite knowledgeable about assessment and data quality, raised the question of validity with them, they just waved that issue away (literally a dismissive hand wave from one of the accreditors’ representatives).

I asked whether they weighed costs against benefits when they decided what types of demands to make of the colleges they accredit. The answer I got can only be described as surreal.  An earnest accreditor patiently explained to me that when his organization visits schools of lesser means, the teams don’t eat out at expensive restaurants, they go to “places like McDonalds, not McDonalds but places like that.”  Apparently the only cost he recognized as associated with accreditation was the cost of hosting the site visitors.  Not the piles of dubious data (hand wave), not the meetings where everyone goes through the charade of loop closing, not the ever growing assessment office, those it seems are not costs they consider.

Since then I have concluded that accreditors are probably at the root of the assessment problem.  So I have been searching high and low for information on how accreditors went from being organizations that were created by colleges and universities to protect themselves from heavy-handed regulation by the federal government, to organizations that act as surrogates for the government and impose heavy-handed, intrusive and counter-productive regulation on universities.   I am still looking but I recently found this 2010 article on the AAUP website called “Accreditation and the Federal Future of Higher Education,”

It’s by Judith S. Eaton of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, which she still runs.  She argues that the push for accountability derives from Bush-era No Child Left Behind thinking bleeding into the Spellings Commission Report and from the there into the Department of Ed’s process for “recognizing” accreditors.  Interestingly the Obama Department of Ed continued down this path in its “sub-regulatory” instructions to accreditors.

Her essay is now eight years old so much may have changed since then, but her closing call for faculty to resist the accreditors’ intrusion into areas that should be the domain of academic faculty still rings true:

First, we need more involvement in the work of accreditation, especially in accreditation commissions. These bodies decide what is and what is not accredited and, perhaps even more important, determine what accreditation standards are to be. Faculty members unhappy with accreditation may resolve their concerns by joining these commissions and seeking change.

Second, we need more political advocacy. Attacking accreditation as unresponsive, intrusive, and “administrative” will not resolve such issues. We need faculty leaders to join forces with administration and association leaders to press government so that we may at least contain and, if possible, alter the course of federal involvement in academic issues.

Third, it is time to get beyond complaints expressed at conference sessions and in journal articles replete with unhappiness and have a more productive exchange. We need a constructive national dialogue where faculty members and accreditors come together to build shared understanding about their respective roles. We need to campaign together for the core values of institutional autonomy, academic freedom, and peer and professional review, making clear to students and society how important these values are to the future success of higher education. Most important, we need faculty members to be part of the leadership for this effort. Who other than those in the higher education community will make the case for these values?