Republicans are irate that their plans to remake higher education are being stymied.
Colleges have been at the center of the nation’s culture wars for decades. From boardrooms to classrooms, highly visible battles have taken place over pronouns, free speech, and curricula. Recently, a new battlefield has emerged, one that could have disastrous consequences for public colleges: institutional accreditation.
While conservatives have long held reservations about accreditors, their complaints have mostly been that the agencies hinder the development of vocational programs and other alternatives to traditional higher education. The latest attacks on accreditors, however, largely center on their role in thwarting Republican efforts to reshape institutional politics.
Institutional accreditors do not answer to state governments and therefore have proved to be a formidable hurdle.
In recent years, Republican governors and legislatures have sought to enact rapid and sweeping changes in public higher education, notably in the areas of tenure rights and the curriculum. For the most part those politicians have been able to run roughshod over their opposition, including public-college leaders and faculty members, whose institutions are at the mercy of elected officials. But institutional accreditors, whose approval is essential to colleges’ receipt of federal student aid, do not answer to state governments and so have proved to be a more formidable hurdle. Frustrated politicians have responded with targeted legislation, and conservative writers have joined in the attack, characterizing the agencies as “abusive and politicized” “cartels.”
An opening salvo in this conflict occurred, perhaps unsurprisingly, in Florida. In 2021, Richard Corcoran, an ally of Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, was being considered for the presidency of Florida State University. But he was also, at that time, the state’s education commissioner, and served on the State University System’s Board of Governors, the body charged with choosing FSU’s president. The institution’s accreditor, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools’ Commission on Colleges, known as SACSCOC, sent a letter to the board’s chair noting the conflict of interest. The letter stated that if the issue remained unresolved, it could place the university out of compliance with the accreditor’s standards, potentially imperiling FSU’s accredited status.
While Corcoran ultimately did not get the job (he has since been appointed interim president of the politically realigned New College of Florida), the accreditor’s letter so unnerved the Republican-controlled state Legislature that it passed a bill requiring the state’s public colleges to change accreditors after each 10-year accreditation cycle. DeSantis was candid in his criticism of accreditors: “The role that these accreditation agencies play, I don’t even know where they come from, they’re … effectively self-anointed. They have an inordinate amount of power to shape what is going on at these universities.”
Conveniently, that legislation had only recently been made possible through revisions of U.S. Department of Education regulations pushed by the then education secretary, Betsy DeVos, long known for her hostility to public education. Formerly, institutions were tied to one of seven regional accreditors based on their location (though it should be noted that there are institutions, most often for-profit colleges, accredited through less-prestigious “national” accreditors). Now, institutions are free to seek accreditation from other accreditors, potentially providing leverage against accrediting bodies that are seen as unfriendly. Notably, the Florida law requires all of the state’s public colleges, within the next decade, to find a new accreditor — one that is not SACSCOC.
The law might have been partly intended to warn accreditors broadly and to punish SACSCOC specifically, but it is the state’s public colleges that are likely to be harmed the most. Getting reaccredited is an intensive process spanning many years, but it is significantly less daunting and costly than seeking initial accreditation. The Department of Education has warned that the legislation could make Florida’s public institutions ineligible to receive federal student-aid money. Without those funds, most institutions would find themselves in financial peril.
The potential benefit for politicians — increased discretion to make fundamental changes that exceed the scope of their authority — probably won’t be realized in the short term. All seven regional accreditors possess comparable standards. Although accreditors have their own leadership and staff that are independent of the institutions they serve, member colleges themselves determine accrediting standards, and peer reviewers ultimately enforce those standards. The standards reflect broadly held institutional and educational values.
Of course, the ultimate goal of the conservative movement in higher education is to remake institutional cultures to more closely reflect its values. That means curricular changes, an area of responsibility that all regional accreditors agree belongs to the faculty. And, more recently, another battle has emerged between a governing board and SACSCOC on this very point.
In January the Board of Trustees of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill adopted a resolution to “accelerate” development of a new School of Civic Life and Leadership. The school had long been characterized as lacking faculty input and as a thinly disguised means of inserting conservative ideology into the institution’s curriculum. Nonetheless, the chair of UNC’s board began to publicize the new school to friendly media outlets, including Fox News. As a result, UNC’s accreditor, also SACSCOC, announced it intended to send a letter of inquiry to determine the role of the board’s involvement in the school’s creation. That action was perceived by conservatives as an explicit threat. The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board weighed in, stating that the accreditor was swinging a hammer against the institution and violating democratic principles.
Conservatives have made it increasingly clear that they think governing boards of public institutions should answer to no one. But that view has an unspoken addendum: as long as the members of those boards are selected by Republicans. SACSCOC is the accreditor at the center of these early battles simply because, in seven of the 11 states in its region, Republicans control state government and therefore possess the power to select members of governing boards. As those battles extend beyond the Southern region, the terms of the conflict may change. But accreditors are likely to remain the perceived enemy any time they question the authority of governing boards or other bodies that impose changes that violate procedural norms or shift curricular responsibility away from the faculty.
Conservatives have made it increasingly clear that they think governing boards of public institutions should answer to no one.
In a narrow sense, those initial fights may seem to be typical partisan warfare merely extended to a new domain, but the larger question concerns control over institutions. The political right may be the aggressor now, but that could change. Many left-leaning faculty members chafe at the perceived demands of accreditors, and recent research reveals that a sizable proportion of faculty members view accreditation as associated with “bureaucracy, regulation, and control.” We shouldn’t expect faculty members to rush to defend their accreditors.
Ignoring threats in the current environment would be a mistake. Though there are opportunities for improvement, accreditors principally defend sound institutional policies and practices, including the faculty’s role in shared governance. Most important, current accrediting standards across all regions support faculty members’ pre-eminent role in shaping curricula. If that is to be maintained, we must guard against sudden, and often ill-advised, regulatory changes. To not do so would further erode the ability of accreditors to act independently.
Information, openness, and transparency are the best ways to build broad support for institutional accreditation. At my own college, we have begun to invite faculty and staff members to attend professional-development events related to accreditation, including our accreditor’s annual meeting. In our experience, once people understand the peer-reviewed nature of accreditation, as well as its history and rationale, their opposition and resistance to it wane. The shadowy group of bureaucrats making demands on an institution begin to look more like a body of peers using research on best practices in higher education to guide institutions toward continuous quality improvement.
In truth, accreditors make relatively few demands, and those they do make grant a large degree of discretion to institutions. We should invite reluctant colleagues into a conversation about relevant standards and how an institution might develop strategies to meet them.
The politicization of accreditation may be politically expedient in the short term to some, but it is not in the best interests of institutions or students. As shown in the Florida State and Chapel Hill cases, accreditors can serve as an important check on the political motives of state governments. As these battles continue, we must support the role of accreditors in maintaining the political independence of our institutions. As with any peer-review process, institutional accreditation is imperfect, but it is better than any measure designed only for political gain.
By Jarrod Kelly
MARCH 31, 2023
As published in the CHRONICLE FOR HIGHER EDUCATION,
A version of this article appeared in the April 14, 2023, issue.