Fixing Higher Education (12)

February 28, 2011

Today, Daniel deVise posts a contribution from Molly Corbett Broad, President of the American Council on Education (ACE), the umbrella organization that gathers together the diverse tribes and principalities of higher education.  Molly formerly headed the University of North Carolina system.  She is as wise and thoughtful a higher education leader as I have ever met.

She addresses two issues: adult higher education and accreditation.  “Today’s adult education ecosystem is fractured, misaligned, and under capacity,” says Molly: strong talk but probably an understatement.  No one else in the “Fixing Higher Education” series has focused on the topic, so I’m glad she did, and she has thoughtful things to say about the direction for improvement.

I was more intrigued by what she has to say about accreditation.  I’ll quote it in full, because it offers some useful history and then a proposal:

“In the area of accreditation, we must strengthen and reinforce the value of this system of voluntary peer-review that has contributed to the quality and impressive diversity of American higher education that has made it the finest in the world. Indeed, accreditation has served higher education well for more than a century. But its purposes and the demands upon it are changing quickly and dramatically. What started out as a peer review process to facilitate institutional self-improvement has increasingly become the only readily available tool to ensure the academic quality of institutions of higher education.  As a result, policy makers and the public expect accreditors to do more things–like serve as consumer protection watchdogs, a role I believe is more appropriate for government entities.

“The widespread and growing interest in education outcomes and the work of accreditors makes it imperative that the higher education community undertake a sustained and systematic review of the practice to ensure that it is both rigorous and easily understandable to the public and policy makers.”

Note the emphasis on peer review: higher education’s general approach to making professional judgments of value.  We use it for evaluating research, for making decisions about publication, for making recommendations about tenure and much else — including making judgments about whether an institution of higher education should be seen as credible (accreditable).  Note the emphasis on how this kind of process affirms the diversity among higher education institutions:  public and independent, secular and religiously-affiliated, large and small, etc.  But then notice that Molly talks about this system of accreditation via peer review as growing overloaded, and suggests that some of the work now inclkuded in accreditation might be undertaken by “government entities.”

Molly is treading carefully here; it is rare to hear an ACE President call for a wider role for the federal government.  But I believe she suggests this out of a worry that accreditation (via peer review) might collapse in its current form and be wholly taken over by the federal government.  So instead she is suggesting (a) that the federal government take on the “consumer watchdog” part of the function, and (b) that higher education needs to give fresh though to what remains of accreditation via peer review to make sure it is both rigorous and easy to understand by the general public.

I believe she is talking softly but clearly here out of a real concern that if higher education doesn’t get busy, we could lose accreditation via peer review — and a concern that what would replace it would be much worse.



About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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