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02 Sep Posted by in Guidelines, Policies, Region | Comments

American accreditation procedures are unusual, to say the least. Rather than federal government oversight—which we’re all supposed to say would be horrible, and indeed perhaps it would be—basic accreditation falls to regional associations, essentially governed by a mixture of federal rules, fears of possible federal rules, and membership stipulations. Membership is from the participating universities themselves. Universities and colleges are motivated to participate by requirements that accreditation be maintained on pain of losing access to all federal funds.

It’s an odd system, perhaps particularly for big research universities such as Mason. Few officials from the big schools put much time into accreditation governance, which falls therefore by default to administrators from different kinds of institutions.

The system is further complicated by disciplinary accreditation procedures, particularly demanding in the case of business programs but operating also in engineering, nursing, education, law, etc.

Let me say quickly that Mason has pretty good relations with its accrediting bodies. We usually pass through assessments, including our overall periodic visits from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, considerably well. Procedures take a good bit a time, and they do cost money in staffing, but my purpose in writing about this topic is not because we’ve been facing unusual difficulties. Indeed, a visit to SACS this summer to discuss an innovative opportunity was positively pleasant.

There are, however, three pressures that should make us all wonder about our particular system—and I stress system, not any single group—and whether it’s serving us well.

First, obviously, is our growing economic trap, pressed with reductions in state support, caps on tuition, and some unavoidable expense categories. Accreditation requirements on the whole push costs up. SACS, for example, required us to make a significant new investment in a “Quality Enhancement” program which led us to a good initiative but at real expense. Yet it’s not easy to talk with our masters about the pinch, to see about a bit more flexibility.

Second is the growing opportunities presented by technology, to reach out to new audiences in new ways. Now, it’s important that institutions be constrained by some standards as they develop MOOCs and other initiatives—otherwise we’d see innovation overwhelming quality. But it’s not clear that existing standards are entirely necessary or realistic. Yet, again, discussion of change is difficult.

Third is the international scene. Opportunities to offer selected programs overseas grow steadily. Over 600 foreign universities, for example, currently offer degrees in Singapore. Yet very few American institutions participate—in the Singapore case, about 99% of the participants are from the UK and Australia. Is this disproportion in the national interest? Again, we may need to find a way to discuss.

Standards and oversight are vital, and properly framed they will help save us from a variety of potential deteriorations. But I’m not sure we have the system that best suits the times, and I am convinced that we don’t have good ways to engage in mutual discussions of options and alternatives. The issue probably merits more attention than most of us, myself included, normally wish to invest.