Throughout its history, higher education has always played an important role in American society. While the major contributions to the larger society have changed over time-from educating the clergy to serving society through basic research-higher education has always enjoyed the status of self-governance. As a part of the social contract with the larger society, higher education has built its reputation and role in a democratic society on the principle of the necessity of autonomy and self governance. Faculty have had a remarkable history of being able to run their own affairs, i.e., the academic community itself has determined the standards held for the faculty and has judged the quality of their work. Accreditation is one manifestation of this position, since it serves as a mechanism for peers, mostly within the academy, to judge the worth, value and merit of academe. Despite this, the work of the faculty has never been totally isolated from the larger society. Being accountable-responsive and responsible-has always been imbedded in the social contract between society and higher education.
Being responsive and responsible are not synonymous. Being responsive means acknowledging the needs and priorities of the greater society. The 1940 AAUP statement begins with these words: "Institutions of higher education are conducted for the common good and not to further the interest either of the individual teacher or the institution as a whole." (AAUP, 1995, p.3). However, being responsible in its service to society means higher education must adhere to its calling-"the free search for truth and its free exposition"(AAUP, 1995, P.3). In meeting the goals of the common good, higher education must be a critic of society which society will not always like or appreciate. Thus a tension will and should exist.
Harland Bloland, a professor of higher education, provides an insight into this dilemma. "Too much responsiveness may be irresponsible." He offers this paraphrase of the sociologist, Everett Hughes, about the accountability of medical doctors, "A doctor who is too responsive to his patients is called a 'quack'". Can higher education be referred to as the "good doctor of society"? At a minimum, higher education can only hold such a status and honor if the academy acts responsibly. It must always be willing to negotiate its power and role in society. Ironically, its impact and influence is most evident when it touches society, i.e., when higher education is relevant to the larger community it serves.
Thus we have a tension-a potential incompatibility between scholarship and social relevance, independence from and collaboration with the greater community, a critic of but also an accountable ally for society to help solve its ills, and advancing the private gain of the academy and service to a larger community. The solution is not to try to eliminate this tension between the producer and consumer roles, but to build on the creative and energizing tension between responsibility and responsiveness. The academic community should address this tension through dialogue, debate, negotiation, and communication among the relevant communities of interest. It must diligently engage the faculty themselves in the assessment of quality and to share with the other publics its values and the bases of judging quality. The academy can not expect to have the support of the greater community if it does not share its values, bases for judging itself, and the results of its deliberations. It is the minimum "price" that higher education can expect to pay to have its self governance-secrecy no longer suffices. Higher education has to be willing to make public to others its judgments of its peers. It must demonstrate that the public good is more important than the private gain of its own members, e.g. faculty.
So what is the preferred role of accreditation in maintaining a desired social compact between higher education and society? How best can accreditation both address the dual issues of responsiveness and responsibility?
It must be noted at the outset that accreditation is fundamentally a collegial process built on self and peer assessment. Accreditation represents the most public way higher education tries to maintain some of its core values, such as autonomy, self governance, and scholarship. Accreditation has the obligation to be sensitive to the nature and substance of academic quality and thus, the goals, strategies, and practice of accreditation must fit and reinforce what it is assessing. Since higher education is about scholarship, creativity, experimentation, critical analysis, and preparation of our future citizens and leaders, accreditation cannot as a process be grounded in compliance, counting, regulation, or legal mandates. Instead it must encourage discovery, imagination, freedom of expression, diversity, and high standards without undue standardization. Accreditation is credible only if the members who desire self governance accept the obligations of self governance. Peers must have standards of academic quality and be willing to judge each other and work together to improve each other. These principles of self governance, peers judging and helping each other, and being both responsive and responsible to the larger society are the basic tenets of accreditation.
More specifically, how can accreditation help higher education be more responsive? Accreditation can lead the way in addressing the current issue of simultaneously considering quality, cost, and access in any evaluation of an academic program. In a very practical way , accreditation can engage the major stakeholders in reconciling the inherent conflicts among these forces. It can also force the communities to be more clear about projected future needs in the world of work and in our society. It would be irresponsible for higher education to ignore current and projected labor market forces. Graduating highly educated persons without viable career opportunities is not being very accountable.
It can help educators, especially in the professions, be forward looking rather than examining compliance to existing standards. It should involve multiple stakeholders-faculty peers, practitioners, and the public- in the process of assessment. In a sense, accreditation is the link among the various constituencies. It can fulfill its functions of communication and negotiation by engaging the relevant communities in the discussions. In short, by "sitting beside" each other, the parties can better understand the needs of each other and develop the necessary trust needed for the communities to understand and support each other.
And how can accreditation help higher education be more responsible? Accreditation is most useful when it becomes the means to a dialogue about what is to be valued by the relevant communities of interest. The academy can not say, "leave us alone and we will govern and control ourselves." Instead, the higher education community needs to work from the principle of "freedom with responsibility", not "freedom from responsibility" (Braskamp and Wergin, 1997).
It must tell its story, illustrating it with evidence of the merit and worth of the pursuit of scholarship. The message is not peripheral, secondary, easy, routine or mechanical, but highly philosophical, political, and evaluative.
It can serve as an important alternative to competition, market forces, and compliance to governmental rules and regulations. It remains the only academic community peer based mechanism for evaluating quality that includes faculty. It can reinforce the faculty's role in planning and implementing the curriculum, balancing historical and intellectuals traditions with current pressures for relevance and immediate results. In short, it builds on the perspective of peers evaluating one another.
It can also counter the very recent trend of an over reliance on "easy to measure"outcomes as the basis for judging the quality of institutions. Accreditation differs from certification or licensure in which competencies of graduates are tested for admission into some profession. Accreditation is about the vitality, quality and the future of academic programs and institutions. It is a prospective decision. As such it can serve an important public protection function. It can protect the public against overly eager entrepreneurial purveyors of education who are quick to offer program without due concern for quality.
In summary, accreditation can play a valuable role in higher education's social contract with society. It can help the academy demonstrate its service to society–its responsiveness to societal needs. Second, it can make sure the fundamental values of higher education are always present when its service to society is negotiated among the stakeholders.