The Corner

An Idea for Real Reform for Secretary DeVos

So why didn’t I weigh in on the controversy over the nomination of Betsy DeVos? The truth is I could see that both sides were overheated and misleading, yet both were making some good points. I prudently decided not to take a stand that would arouse everyone’s animosity against me. Now that we have Secretary DeVos, it’s time to offer her advice. My first idea is that she should read my American Heresies and Higher Education. Here’s one point I make there:

We in higher education are seeing the despotic impositions of educational bureaucrats floating up in our direction through the efforts of our administrative class to impose a “culture of assessment” through the increasingly intrusive and pointlessly homogenizing standards for accreditation. Much of what’s required for accreditation now is a huge waste of time and treasure in the eyes of faculty, and they comply with ironic resignation to degrading requests. The culture of assessment is a war against the moral and intellectual diversity that has been the saving grace of our system of higher education

When faculty ask administrators why they put up with the burgeoning accreditation nonsense, their excuse is always that it’s better than direct regulation by the federal government. The government, after all, has designated accreditation by one of the monopolistic regional accrediting associations as what’s required to qualify for federally subsidized loans for students and other federal aid. And slacking off when it comes to measurable learning outcomes and all that, it appears, would cause the bureaucrats to stop trusting the administrators. Margaret Spellings, President George W. Bush’s secretary of education, often made that point clear. Complying with all the demands of the Department of Education continues to be a big reason given for our bloating class of administrators in higher education.

Now what if the Department of Education were to say that it would be perfectly fine with a much more minimalist mode of accreditation? That means one that wasn’t pretty obviously about imposing uniformity on higher education in our country through expert-concocted best practices, the reconfiguration of all of education according to the twin standards of competency and diversity (which leaves no safe space for liberal education properly understood). The latter standard shamelessly serves a definite left/corporatist agenda around the buzz words “social justice,” “global citizenship,” ”equity,” “activism,” “engagement,” and such. Now, there’s nothing wrong with a left/corporatist college, but adopting the ideological views of the administrators who dominate the American Association of Colleges and Universities shouldn’t be a requirement for being in business.

What if accreditation simply meant validating that the college was performing at an adequate level to grant degrees, given that really mediocre places are getting accredited anyway under the present dispensation?

Here’s my model process of accreditation: A team of evaluators swarms the campus unannounced, checking the books, syllabi, and faculty qualifications and visiting some classes and observing the facilities. All the books and records would have to be accurate and up to date, but the college wouldn’t have to do anything different from it would ordinarily do just to please the accreditors. If everything checks out as “good enough,” they split, leaving behind a certificate of approval. If not, the school is put on notice. You might say this isn’t much different from the process by which hotels and restaurants are certified as good enough to serve customers. Well, that’s the point. It isn’t.

The Department of Education couldn’t keep accreditation agencies from requiring more than it does, but it would expose such requirements for what they really are. It wouldn’t be the government’s fault!

Peter Augustine Lawler — Peter Augustine Lawler is Dana Professor of Government at Berry College. He is executive editor of the acclaimed scholarly quarterly Perspectives on Political Science and served on President George ...

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