Accreditation and a Fresh Start?

September 30, 2013

Judith S. Eaton

When Chair Tom Harkin opened the first of a planned dozen hearings by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on reauthorization of the Higher Education Act on September 19, 2013, Ranking Member Lamar Alexander challenged all of us: We need a fresh start and a new Higher Education Act.

Mr. Alexander, in offering this challenge, reminded us of the conditions that are essential for effective colleges and universities, mentioning four characteristics: autonomy, competition, choice and commitment to excellence. The features had been suggested to the Senator a number of years ago by David Gardner, former president of the University of California.

These features resonate with many of us. We know that institutional autonomy includes responsibility to produce the best of education, serving students and society. We know that competition and choice must be used constructively to enhance student achievement and success. We know that the commitment to excellence goes to the heart of our enterprise and must be nurtured at every turn. However one may question how we do what we do in higher education, the dedication of faculty, staff and administrators to a vision of an outstanding collegiate enterprise has been the animating principle of what we have been doing for hundreds of years.

At the same time, the Senator recalled, rather pointedly to those of us in the academic community, the price of not investing in two additional features, innovation and change – likening higher education today to the auto industry in the 1970s. He asked why, when market forces are operating in higher education and our autonomy has produced opportunity, the public does not see more innovation. And, as was clear from this and other hearings, the perception that we need to do more here is shared among Members on both sides of the aisle.

Most important, Senator Alexander pointed to that which can shackle innovation and change in higher education. He was speaking of Washington DC. He said that we do not need price controls from Washington, nor mandates about controlling college costs, nor prescriptive definitions of quality, nor determination of research priorities. Many of us in higher education agree: A higher education enterprise dictated by government officials cannot, with all respect, yield the student success and academic achievement that is essential to our society. Somehow, government and our institutions need to work together to assure a combination of academic leadership and public accountability that is innovative, energetic and productive.

Let’s give consideration to a fresh start in reauthorization, informed by the last 60 years of the federal government-higher education relationship. Let’s call for greater accountability, but not at the price of creative academic leadership from the faculty, presidents and academic vice presidents in our colleges and universities. Let’s assure education for work, but not at the price of depriving students of a broad general education. Let’s address the financing of students and institutions, but in a way that does not reduce higher education to a transactional experience, stripped of commitment to education for citizenship and service to community. Let’s work on quality, but grounded in the intellectual capacity of our students, not how much money a student goes on to earn or how many credentials are acquired, independent of examining the richness of the educational experience.

When Senator Alexander spoke at the 2008 Annual Conference of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, he emphasized public accountability. He told us that we had a window of opportunity to provide leadership, but that the window would not be available indefinitely. This was valuable advice. Higher education has made much progress in response to this challenge during the last five years. However, as the Senator reminded us at the hearing, we have more work to do.