June 24, 2016
A Statement from Judith Eaton
The decision of the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI) to remove the recognition of the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS) is both understandable and unfortunate.
It is understandable because although the issues related to ACICS about protecting students are also issues for other accreditors, the extensiveness of the concerns for ACICS warranted additional attention and action.
It is unfortunate for all concerned: ACICS, students, the ACICS-accredited schools that are doing a good job, the accrediting community, NACIQI and the Department of Education.
For ACICS, it got fired. Yes, there is a long and tortuous path to attempt to prevent the NACIQI action from going into effect, likely years, and ACICS can continue to operate. However, and on grounds that are open to question, ACICS is now tainted, as least for the immediate future and perhaps ongoing.
For students and the ACICS schools, there were alternative solutions to the central problem of the needed additional rigor of review from ACICS that would involve less uncertainty and chaos than the path NACIQI chose. Hundreds of thousands of students and hundreds of campuses could have been shielded from the disruption that likely school closings and shifts from one accreditor to another would mean – inability to complete an education, having a credential from a school that is called into question, fairly or unfairly, because it is ACICS-accredited. In the cause of protecting students, we may be protecting some, but we are harming many more.
For the accrediting community, the message is clear: The federal government is the principal architect and controlling authority of accreditation. While this role for government in relation to quality assurance is quite common throughout the world, for U.S. accreditors it is a profound change and poses a significant challenge. The bedrock of U.S. accreditation is self-regulation and peer review in the service of institutional autonomy driven by mission and academic freedom. It is now clear that this bedrock has given way: There is no longer any way for accreditors to both be gatekeepers and thus managed and judged by the Department, yet retain an adequate measure of self-determination in judging quality. As was clearly demonstrated at the NACIQI meeting in relation to all accreditors, nothing that an accreditor does is beyond the purview of NACIQI and thus the federal government.
For NACIQI and the Department, the role of politics – in contrast to policy, standards and regulations – cannot be ignored in the determination of the fate of ACICS. Accreditation was invented in part to buffer higher education against undue political influence. NACIQI itself was created to provide public, apolitical scrutiny of accrediting organizations as gatekeepers. Just as accreditation has been federalized, the ACICS decision makes clear the extent to which both NACIQI – and accreditation – have been politicized.
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