The Education Department's top staff official on accreditation has abruptly left his job, at a time when the department's political leaders are engaged in an aggressive campaign to ramp up the government's oversight of accrediting agencies.
Exactly what led to the transfer of John W. Barth, director of accreditation and state liaison, to a position in the Federal Student Aid Ombudsman's office remains hazy. The department's official stance, through a spokeswoman, was only this terse statement: "John Barth has accepted a new position at FSA." Another department official framed Barth's decision as routine and his choice, but the available evidence overwhelmingly suggests otherwise.
Barth himself did not respond to repeated requests for comment, nor did Education Department senior officials. Co-workers of Barth's said that the change had come abruptly, and college officials who work closely with the department on accreditation issues learned of his job shift only after Barth had left -- some of them after being informed by a reporter.
Most significantly, Barth's shift comes in the wake of some publicly visible conflict over the department's approach to accreditation. In the wake of the report of the Secretary of Education's Commission on the Future of Higher Education, the department's top officials have pushed aggressively on a range of fronts to carry out its recommendations, particularly those that would require colleges to better measure and report how much their students learn.
Department officials have focused significant attention on accreditation as a wedge for doing that, because changes in accrediting standards -- some of which department leaders believe can be accomplished without the need for new laws or rules (and therefore without the approval of Congress) -- have the potential to directly influence hundreds or thousands of colleges.
One of the department's strategies became clear late last year, in the build-up to a semiannual meeting in December of its National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity, a panel of higher education and public officials that reviews and regulates accrediting agencies. In the months before each meeting, the Education Department's staff prepares a report on each accrediting group up for review, and the advisory panel uses those reports as the starting point for its own deliberations about whether to renew the group's authority to operate. As the top career staff person (which in Washington parlance means not a political appointee) on accreditation issues, Barth oversaw those staff reviews.
In the days before the November meeting, three accrediting agencies discovered that their staff reports had been rewritten to add new issues or significantly change the findings against them, all in ways that left them in hot water. In two cases, involving the Western Association of Schools and Colleges and the American Academy of Liberal Education, the agencies were confronted with heightened requirements about how they measure student learning; in the other, the American Bar Association's accrediting arm was told that it faced punishment if it did not alter a standard it used to ensure racial and ethnic diversity among law school student bodies.
In all three cases, the changes in the staff reports reportedly came from the upper echelons of the Education Department, where officials are politically appointed . And at the December meeting of the advisory committee, when college officials and some members of the advisory panel balked at the changes recommended in the rewritten staff reports, Barth and his subordinates tacitly acknowledged that the decisions had resulted from the changing political winds in Washington.
Since initially approving the AALE’s actions on its assessment of student achievement earlier in the year, Steven Porcelli, whose work Barth oversaw in the accreditation office, said that “the national discussions" have focused on measurable outcomes of student learning, shifting even the department’s own perspective on what counts as sufficient and what does not, he said.
In the American Bar Association's case, officials of the accrediting group cited the fact that the staff report had been rewritten near the end of the process as what they described as a clear sign of political interference by top officials within the department. The accreditation advisory committee rebuked department officials at the December meeting by voting to strike the critical language about the diversity standard from the final report.
It is impossible to say for sure that Barth lost his job because he was perceived as not pushing hard enough for the changes the department's political leaders want to make. But that is clearly how his situation is being viewed by higher education officials who follow accreditation, who generally characterize Barth as an official who is intelligent and tough-minded, but fair.
The suddenness of his departure -- and the fact that it came about so quietly -- is widely seen as evidence that the department's political leaders are moving as aggressively as they can, through any and all avenues available to them, to bring about the changes they want in accreditation, and in higher education generally.
"Any administration has the legal authority to move a senior civil servant from one job to another," said Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president for government and public affairs at the American Council on Education. "What causes concern in this case is the fear that someone who was tough but fair will be replaced with someone who is tough and unfair."
Hartle added: "The simultaneity of this change coupled with the initiation of negotiated rulemaking before Congress has acted on reauthorization suggests that the department is very anxious to impose a new agenda on accrediting agencies."