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Volume 2, Number 5, August, 2006

Messages and Messengers:
Continuing The Conversation About
Quality In Higher Education

Similar Messages, Different Messengers

“…colleges and universities, for all the benefits they bring, accomplish far less for their students than they should.”

“Has the quality of teaching improved? More important, are students learning more than they did in 1950?....The honest answer to these questions is that we do not know.”

“…the moment has surely come for America’s colleges to take a more candid look at their weaknesses and think more boldly about setting higher educational standards for themselves.”

These quotations are from Derek Bok’s recent publication, Our Underachieving Colleges: A Candid Look at How Much Students Learn and Why They Should Be Learning More (2006). Comments such as these frequently punctuate conversations and writings in higher education. Indeed, many higher education leaders, consistent with Mr. Bok, routinely point to significant shortcomings associated with our work. Such critique of the academy from within has been going on for a long time.

These internal commentaries sometimes converge with external critiques as well. The quotations noted here might easily have come from the August 3, 2006 draft of the U.S. Secretary of Education’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education—already well known for its criticisms of both higher education and accreditation—rather than a higher education leader.

Both Mr. Bok and the Commission are concerned about the wellbeing of higher education, not only for the sake of our colleges and universities, but also for the sake of students and society. Both speak to the centrality and importance of undergraduate collegiate study. Both decry what they take to be a lack of adequate attention to issues regarding the quality of learning and student achievement.

Mr. Bok only briefly mentions accreditation; it does not figure prominently in responding to the needs of undergraduate education. On the other hand, the Futures Commission’s draft does focus on accreditation, sharply critical of its performance, but urging that it has a substantive role to play. The draft speaks to the “significant shortcomings” of accreditation and points out that higher education requires a “transformation of accreditation.”

When confronted with these similar comments about higher education coming from quite different sources, reactions differ dramatically. While the initial reaction to Underachieving has been positive, some in the academy have been quick to challenge—even angrily—the external critique of the commission. It is difficult to find many higher education leaders these days who claim that all is right with the quality of student learning or the progress of students in our colleges and universities. Yet, these same leaders who are willing to live with significant criticism of higher education from within quickly reject the same or similar criticism from outside (e.g., the Futures Commission). Perhaps the academy is simply not very good at accepting criticism from “outside the family.”

Dismissing the Message because of the Messenger

The various critiques of higher education are a powerful message that all is not well in our enterprise, even if these comments emerge from places outside the academy such as the Futures Commission. Yet, responses to these messages about the quality of higher education have more often involved dismissing, rather than accepting, key points. It is not uncommon to hear that:

  • The critics “do not understand us”—premised on the hypothesis that, “if we were truly understood, we would not be criticized.”
  • The criticisms are “political”: The criticisms are offered not to promote a responsible, rational analysis of higher education, but to further an ideological agenda.
  • Our critics cannot begin to comprehend the difficulties associated with change in higher education: We seem to believe that restraint of change is essential to preserve the unique features of what we do.

However comforting the dismissals may be, they do not appear to have much traction in the current environment. And, at the same time, the criticisms continue to resonate.

To claim that “the public does not understand us” and “if the public did understand us, we would not be criticized” is simply off-base. The public can easily value us without a detailed understanding of what we do. The public valuing of higher education is about the personal and private reasons that students go to college: education for life, work and citizenship. These differ from “understanding” that may result from probing the funding structure of higher education or understanding how tenure works or how academic departments are organized. The public needs to have confidence in us. It need not be educated in all the complexities of our enterprise for us to achieve this.

When it comes to engendering confidence, higher education is no different from other important social institutions. For example, we do not need to understand the internal combustion engine or be computer geeks to value the responsiveness and usefulness of these tools that are so vital to our lives and work. We know a good product or service when we see it, even without understanding the many and complex processes that lead to its effectiveness. Perhaps hitting closer to home, how many higher education leaders understand the complexities of awarding federal grants and loans to students, even as they routinely welcome the resources provided by the current federal financial aid system?

With regard to our belief that criticisms of higher education and accreditation are “political,” how does this obviate the value of the critique? Social institutions are “political” in that they operate in an environment of other institutions and government in which various ideological agendas come and go. Higher education has always been, at least in part, a political actor. Indeed, we equip ourselves quite well in this arena. Surely we are a robust enough enterprise to withstand the “ideological”—in this case a spate of challenges from a conservative place along the political spectrum—in our otherwise long and storied history. And, just perhaps, the liberal voices among us are not critical enough.

With regard to the oft-stated concern about obstacles associated with change in higher education, we might stop engaging in a self-fulfilling prophecy. We might cease to regularly claim, “You know, higher education is slow to change,” as if it were a badge of honor. It may be true in some instances, but it is not uniformly the case. The development of distance and online learning that currently serves millions of students, the extraordinary growth of community colleges and the internationalization of U.S. higher education are but a few telling examples of our successes here.

The capacity to change is in part driven by the will to change. It is important that capacity and will not be confused. An enterprise that cannot change, whatever its strengths and greatness, is an enterprise that cannot survive. Higher education worldwide is rich in capacity to alter its operation; we in the academy just have trouble admitting this.

In sum, we need public confidence; this does not rest on the public having detailed knowledge of the workings of higher education. We need political success; this does not depend on eradicating all political challenges at any time. We need to change; our efforts need not be truncated by an erroneous vision of a reluctance to change within our enterprise.

The Message and Rethinking

There are other responses to the suggestions of shortcomings that are more helpful, especially those that tend toward some rethinking of higher education. Such responses acknowledge that both Mr. Bok’s book and the Futures Commission are symptomatic of a changing landscape of higher education and accreditation. This landscape is dotted with many features but especially the move toward mass higher education in which, to quote John V. Lombardi in a recent Inside Higher Ed article, “…higher education has shifted from a luxury purchase for some citizens to a commodity purchase for a large percentage of citizens….” (July 18, 2006).

Mr. Bok captures some of the features of the landscape when he discusses technology, international competition and the continuing urgent need for effective education in critical thinking, quantitative and qualitative analysis, languages and writing. The Futures Commission draft speaks to this landscape, pointing out that we need to continue to expand the college-going rates of recent high school graduates and job growth in “knowledge-driven” fields such as engineering and computer science.

Although higher education leaders may remain displeased by the suggestions about higher education quality, a number are rethinking their views and are acting to include more attention to the accountability issues of institutional performance and student achievement and to the transparency of information about their work. We see higher education associations such as the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges (NASULGC), the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) and the Association of American Universities (AAU) rethinking their approaches to performance indicators that member institutions might use voluntarily. We see college and universities that are making accountability and transparency major priorities, including faculty who are focusing more and more attention on student learning outcomes, such as the faculty members at the four universities that were recipients of the 2006 CHEA Award for Institutional Progress on Student Learning Outcomes.

The message is consistent. The messengers are quite different. Our enterprise benefits more from engaging—rather than dismissing—the criticisms.


Bok, Derek. Our Underachieving Colleges: A Candid Look at How Much Students Learn and Why They Should Be Learning More. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2006.

Lombardi, John. “The Value of Commission Reports,” Inside Higher Ed. July 18, 2006. Also available at

The U.S. Secretary of Education’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education. Commission Report. Third Draft, August 3, 2006. Also available at

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