The Accreditor Barked!

BY HANK REICHMAN

Yesterday word came that Simon Newman, the notorious president of Mount St. Mary’s University in Maryland, had resigned.  Newman, readers will recall, was the fool who spoke of drowning at-risk freshmen like “bunnies” and who summarily dismissed (and subsequently reinstated) two long-time faculty members for “disloyalty.”  (For background go here, here, and here.)  His resignation came as something of a surprise.  Until yesterday the institution’s trustees had stood firmly behind Newman, who also won some support among students.  So, what happened to change things?

Perhaps Newman’s resignation came in response to an action taken by the institution’s accrediting agency, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education.  Mount St. Mary’s had received strong reaffirmation of its accredited status as recently as last June.  But in the wake of the growing controversy swirling around the president the Commission this week informed the university that it must provide answers by March 15 to questions about how “recent developments” may “have implications for continued compliance” with one requirement and four standards that are crucial to being accredited.

Middle States only specified the standards on which it wants answers from Mount St. Mary’s; it didn’t say that any actions specifically violate those standards. But the standards include phrases and provisions that appear relevant to what has occurred at the university. Here are some of the ways the standards might apply to Mount St. Mary’s, according to Inside Higher Ed

 Integrity. The integrity standards say: “In all its activities, whether internal or external, an institution should keep its promises, honor its contracts and commitments, and represent itself truthfully.” Faculty members say that this was violated when the college gave new students a survey without explaining its use, when faculty members were fired in violations of their contracts and when administrators said faculty members had broken university rules. The integrity provision also states that faculty members have the right “to question assumptions,” something faculty members say the university violated by criticizing professors for disagreeing with the president and not showing sufficient loyalty.

Admissions and retention. The standards state that colleges must have “programs and services to ensure that admitted students who marginally meet or do not meet the institution’s qualifications achieve expected learning goals and higher education outcomes at appropriate points.” Critics say that planning to weed out such students with a survey given before they started class violates that standard. Faculty members also note that the Middle States standards invite colleges to provide “evidence that support programs and services for low-achieving students are effective in helping students to persist and to achieve learning goals and higher education outcomes.” The implication of this language, professors say, is that the college is supposed to be committed to helping students persist, not trying to get them to leave.

Faculty. The standards require colleges to have “published and implemented standards and procedures for all faculty and other professionals, for actions such as appointment, promotion, tenure, grievance, discipline and dismissal, based on principles of fairness with due regard for the rights of all persons.” Faculty members said that while “published” rules at the colleges may provide for a faculty role in evaluating faculty members, Simon fired people without any faculty role or without any fair rationale. Further, they note that while the president rehired the faculty members, he cited “mercy” as the reason for doing so, suggesting there was nothing wrong with the dismissals.

Leadership and governance. The standards say that colleges must have “a climate of shared collegial governance in which all constituencies (such as faculty, administration, staff, students and governing board members, as determined by each institution) involved in carrying out the institution’s mission and goals participate in the governance function in a manner appropriate to that institution. Institutions should seek to create a governance environment in which issues concerning mission, vision, program planning, resource allocation and others, as appropriate, can be discussed openly by those who are responsible for each activity.” Faculty members say this has been violated by firing faculty members who disagree with the president, and by removing administrators and faculty members who don’t share the president’s apparent vision of a lesser emphasis on the liberal arts in the curriculum.

Last summer on this blog I called attention to then-Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s comment that accrediting agencies are “watchdogs that don’t bark.”  In response, I wrote:

I agree with Duncan that accreditation agencies should be better “watchdogs.”  We disagree, however, at whom and what they should bark.  Duncan would have them snap at the letter carrier and the delivery person but wag their tails at the burglars.  For the real scandal in the accreditation arena is the failure of most accreditors to challenge harmful institutional priorities and practices that erode genuine educational quality.

But now we may have a case where the watchdog not only barked, but did so to warn of very real danger.  And perhaps the bark was effective.  Indeed, it is difficult to imagine any other development that might have lost Newman the support of his board and compelled his resignation.

In the fall of 2012, The Council on Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) and the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) released an advisory statement on Accreditation and Academic Freedom.  That statement asked:

To what extent are accrediting organizations alert to the importance of academic freedom? To what extent do their standards give adequate guidance on the subject and capture the significance of institutional decision making and the faculty’s role in that process? To what extent are these standards realized in application, by periodic inspection and, particularly, on occasions when major controversies erupt? Need more be done?

The statement called on accrediting organizations to

  • Emphasize the principle of academic freedom in the context of accreditation review, stressing its fundamental meaning and essential value.
  • Affirm the role that accreditation plays in the protection and advancement of academic freedom.
  • Review current accreditation standards, policies and procedures with regard to academic freedom and assure that institutions and programs accord with high expectations in this vital area.
  • At accreditation meetings and workshops, focus on challenges to academic freedom, with particular attention to the current climate and its effect on faculty, institutions and programs.
  • Explore developing partnerships among accreditors to concentrate additional attention on academic freedom and further secure the commitment of the entire accreditation community.

Recently AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure and its Committee on Accreditation agreed to jointly survey regional accrediting agencies about their implementation of the recommendations of the 2012 statement.  To be honest, we aren’t expecting much of a positive response.  But Middle States’ action with respect to Mount St. Mary’s, and the university’s apparent response, suggest that accreditation can still be an important positive force for improvement, quality, shared governance, and academic freedom.  And this provides all the more encouragement for faculty to press harder for accreditors to reform their approach and focus less on phony “outcomes” and busywork “assessment” and more on the real challenges we face and the substantive threat to the professional status of faculty and to democratic higher education posed by alleged educational “leaders” who abandon shared governance and attack academic freedom.

One thought on “The Accreditor Barked!

  1. Pingback: AAUP Censures College of Saint Rose and University of Missouri | ACADEME BLOG

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