WASHINGTON -- Few accrediting agencies seemed to have more to gain from Congress's 2008 decision to dismantle and then reconfigure the U.S. Education Department's advisory committee on accreditation than did the American Academy for Liberal Education.
The accreditor -- once a darling of conservatives for its championing of traditional liberal education -- was under fire throughout the Bush administration for its perceived failure to meet federal standards, and it was left to accredit another day in mid-2008 when then-Education Secretary Margaret Spellings lifted a restriction that had barred the agency from accrediting new institutions and cleared it to operate for three years.
The actions against the liberal education accreditor were among several that had led some higher education officials -- and their supporters in Congress -- to complain that the department's accrediting panel, the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity -- had overstepped its authority in pursuit of Spellings' political and policy goals. In renewing the Higher Education Act in 2008, Congress scuttled the existing advisory panel and reconstituted it, giving much more authority to lawmakers and limiting the power of the executive branch.
The new committee begins its work this week, with its first meeting since mid-2008, and the liberal education agency is among the accreditors due to be reviewed during the panel's three-day agenda. (The committee's most significant responsibility is to recommend to the education secretary which accrediting bodies deserve federal recognition; without that recognition, an accreditor's stamp of approval of a college does not carry with it the all-important right for the institution's students to receive federal financial aid.)
If AALE officials were hoping that the new administration would take a kinder, gentler approach to the agency, though, they are surely disappointed. The report prepared by Education Department staff members to guide the panel's work at this meeting urges the panel to recommend that Education Secretary Arne Duncan deny recognition to the accreditor, citing the agency's "continued noncompliance" with dozens of federal accrediting criteria.
"Overall, the Department continues to have serious concerns with the performance of this agency, its reliability as a recognized accrediting agency, and its ability to fulfill its responsibilities as a recognized accrediting agency," the staff report states. "In addition to the issues cited here, the overall quality of the agency's submission and response, and the inconsistent and inaccurate information that it has provided in its submission, raise serious concerns regarding its reliability as a recognized accrediting agency."
Ralph A. Rossum, chairman of the AALE board and Salvatori Professor of American Constitutionalism at Claremont McKenna College, said in an interview late Sunday that the agency's officials were "shocked" when they received a highly critical draft report from the department's staff in October, given that the accreditor had earned a clean bill of health when it was last reviewed.
"Then suddenly, we find ourselves deficient on all kind of matters for engaging in practices had never been considered a problem whatsoever" in the past, Rossum said. "It wasn't that we changed everything in two years. We were continuing to operate in belief we were in full compliance. It looked a little arbitrary that past practice that was fully acceptable [in 2008] suddenly was not."
AALE officials, Rossum said, made a wholesale series of changes to the agency's policies, procedures and forms in the five weeks after they received the draft report, "to go out of our way to demonstrate that we were going to do things in the way the new staff wants." The agency submitted between 500 and 700 pages of documents in that period, but its responses appeared to have only a marginal influence on the department: the staff's final report still found 46 areas of noncompliance.
Rossum said the accreditor's experience with the Education Department's new regulatory approach to accreditation had implications for other agencies. "I think every accreditor should be really nervous," he said, referring to AALE as a "canary in the coal mine."