The Heat Is Turned Up

Education Department panel blasts controversial accreditor of liberal education programs, restricting its authority for 6 months.
December 6, 2006

An accrediting agency that in the 1990s was considered a darling for academic conservatives faced not-so-friendly fire Tuesday from a panel that advises the Bush administration on whether accreditors are doing their jobs and carrying out the education secretary’s standards.

Citing serious concerns about the American Academy for Liberal Education’s failure to clearly define "acceptable levels of institutional success with respect to student achievement," based on both quantitative and qualitative external outcomes measures, the panel took the harsh step of essentially recommending a freeze on the AALE’s ability to accredit new institutions until its petition for renewal is revisited at the next meeting of the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity, in June.

What was missing from the AALE application for renewal was, a department staffer said, a quantifiable rubric for assessing student achievement at an institutional level -- a “bright-line indicator,” if you will.

The advisory committee's staff had criticized the AALE on the accountability front but had recommended that the panel's members extend a standard five-year re-recognition of the agency, with the requirement that it submit an interim report. But the committee, which is being closely watched as higher education officials wonder how far it will go in pushing Secretary Margaret Spellings’ accountability agenda, went even further, originally proposing a much shorter, 18-month re-recognition before deferring the decision altogether.

The accrediting group has 10 days to file an intent to appeal the committee's recommendation that the Education Department refuse to acknowledge any institution newly accredited by AALE until the issue is broached at the June meeting – a move that would render AALE accreditation useless for an institution seeking to obtain access to federal financial aid funds. A similar recommendation passed along by NACIQI in 2005 was later rejected by the assistant secretary for postsecondary education, with the understanding that AALE would go up for renewal of its recognition shortly.

AALE’s focus on the traditional, Western core curriculum was initially embraced by right-leaning academics and policy makers who opposed the movement to enhance multiculturalism in college curriculums, although its president said the organization has never had a political bent and features both prominent Republicans and Democrats among its leaders.

Established in 1992, it is charged with evaluating liberal arts curriculums based on a set of rigorous, classroom-based standards and, as of September, had accredited eight institutions and five programs in the United States, in addition to a handful abroad. Included in its range of members are Thomas Aquinas College, in California, ranked among the Young America's Foundation’s top 10 conservative colleges, St. John’s College in Annapolis, an institution based around a “great books” curriculum, and a distance learning general education program at Anne Arundel Community College, in Maryland.

But AALE has most been in the news of late for its work abroad. A 2005 decision to accredit the American University for Humanities Tbilisi College Campus, in the Republic of Georgia, attracted a frenzy of speculation in the early fall, when some observers questioned the college’s ties to a now-defunct Hawaii university whose academic quality was questioned.

The irony of Tuesday’s proceedings, as Jeffrey D. Wallin, president of AALE, told the committee, is that the accrediting agency was the leader in the accountability movement before the “a-word” became a buzzword.

Back in the late 1990s, the organization had initiated a system for external performance analyses of student work samples at its member institutions, but without the Education Department requiring similar steps of other accreditors, the system was doomed. The external reviews, requiring time and money from members, didn’t fly even with those colleges that had signed up to participate, let alone with potential new members that could choose a different accrediting agency with a less rigorous approach for measuring student learning, Wallin said. "AALE at one time decided to do exactly what the committee wanted it to do. We decided that external standards should be required of all of our members. You know why we were stopped? We were stopped by the Department of Education.”

But there might as well have been a table in the middle of the room that the two sides alternately turned Tuesday, as the committee members pointed the finger right back squarely at the accreditors sitting before them. George A. Pruitt, a NACIQI member and president of Thomas Edison State College, in New Jersey, wondered why the accrediting group insisted that it needed its own third-party process for measuring student achievement, suggesting that it simply needed a mechanism to evaluate institution-level measures.

And Arthur Keiser, a committee member and chair of the Keiser Collegiate System in Florida, said he was flabbergasted by what he characterized as the accrediting group's inability to exhibit the authority entrusted in it by the Department of Education to hold colleges and programs accountable. “For you to sit here and tell us you ‘can’t do it because we’re going to lose our institutions’ truly puts me in a position of questioning your administrative authority,” Kaiser said. “You attempted something that to me seems exceptional and you dropped it because the institutions said it was too hard. Who says accreditation is easy?”

However, Wallin, who asked for the committee’s help in identifying measures for assessing student learning without alienating his members, charged that NACIQI was holding the AALE to a higher standard than it was applying to its peers (a charge that officials at the Western Association of Schools and Colleges had made the day before, and that several committee members, notably Pruitt, flatly denied). “We feel caught,” Wallin said, between a desire for institutional autonomy and the requirements of the committee. “We’re sympathetic to what the committee wants us to do. At the moment, we’re frankly not sure what to do to address the reasonable question the committee has asked again and again in the past few days.”

Wallin also pointed out a procedural irregularity, saying that Education Department staffers had told AALE officials in conversations earlier this year that the group was in compliance in regards to assessing student outcomes. Only during the Thanksgiving holiday did AALE hear otherwise.

Education Department staffers confirmed that to be accurate. Since initially approving the AALE’s actions on its assessment of student achievement earlier in the year, “the national discussions have focused on measurable outcomes,” said Steve Porcelli, a department official, shifting even the department's own perspective on what counts as sufficient and what does not.

Given the confusion, however, Pruitt suggested a motion be put in place to defer making a recommendation on re-recognition of AALE until the advisory committee's June meeting. The motion, advanced by the panel's vice chair, Geri H. Malandra, interim executive vice chancellor for academic affairs for the University of Texas System, called for significant limitations on AALE’s actions in the meantime. It passed unanimously.


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