Twisting in the Wind

When a professor is sued for her scholarly writing, should a university defend her?
July 1, 2008

Once upon a time, the American Academy for Liberal Education was the darling of neoconservative politicians. Wouldn't it be ironic if the administration of George W. Bush killed it?

Supporters of the agency fear that Education Secretary Margaret Spellings may do the deed by inaction. Seven months ago, the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity, which advises the secretary on accreditation matters, recommended that Spellings lift a restriction that bars the liberal education accreditor from approving new institutions. In March, certain members of Spellings's own staff, in the Office of Postsecondary Education, recommended that the department give AALE even more latitude -- not only lifting the ban on accrediting new institutions, but extending its federal recognition for the standard five years, instead of the one that the advisory panel had urged.

But days have turned to weeks and weeks to months since those recommendations, and there has been no word from the secretary. In an interview Monday, the secretary's chief of staff, David Dunn, insisted that there is no conspiracy and that, in fact, there really is no delay. The recommendations are now undergoing an "independent legal review and analysis" by an administrative hearings office within the department, Dunn said, and it would be "very much outside the normal process" for the secretary to step in before that review has occurred. And seven months, he added, is "not outside the normal range on these type of things," he said.

"It is not being held up, hung up. This is the normal deliberative process."

Officials of the accrediting agency and some of its supporters -- including Diane Auer Jones, who until May was responsible for federal accreditation policy as assistant secretary for postsecondary education -- are troubled nonetheless by the delay and by their perception that the agency is being unfairly treated. "I can't say seven months is unusual, but I can say it's unacceptable," Jones, who left the department in large part because of its stance on accreditation, said in an interview Monday. Unacceptable, she and others say, because the department held the agency to a different standard in punishing it so severely originally, and because the delay in righting that wrong threatens to sink the accreditor.

The liberal education agency continues to live in a sort of limbo -- or purgatory, depending on one's view -- in which the colleges it now accredits and those would-be future candidates are unsure about its vitality, if not its survival. From 1995 to 2006, two institutions accredited by the AALE decided to end their affiliation with the agency. In the less than two years since the accreditor came into the sights of the Education Department's leaders -- and in many ways became the poster child for their desire to prod accreditors to hold colleges accountable for how effectively they measure student learning -- between a third and half of the colleges and programs AALE accredits in the United States have jumped ship.

Few of the institutions' leaders have openly told the accreditor's officials that its perceived troubles with the Education Department are to blame, but other explanations are hard to find. "Places don't want to deal with it," says Jeffrey Martineau, the agency's vice president for accreditation. "The thinking seems to be, 'Your problem will somehow rub off on us.'"

So what is the accrediting agency's problem, in the eyes of department officials? AALE's main offense, a stream of transcripts and reports over the last 20 months shows, is that its leaders were perceived as rebuffing the Education Department's intensifying efforts (in the wake of the Secretary of Education's Commission on the Future of Higher Education) to compel accreditors (and by extension the colleges they accredit) to more rigorously assess and measure the learning outcomes of students.

The liberal education accreditor had what in retrospect looks to have been the bad luck to come before the accreditation advisory panel, known as NACIQI, in late 2006 just as the panel and the department's staff were beginning to take a tougher stance on learning outcomes. Then in and in the months leading up to that meeting, Jeffrey D. Wallin, the academy's outspoken president, had the temerity to question whether it was wise to try to measure the fruits of liberal education using the sorts of objective and standardized measures that department officials seemed increasingly to favor.

In that December 2006 meeting, and in exchanges with department officials in advance of that meeting, Wallin did, he acknowledges, "resist" the department's pressure to quantify learning outcomes, out of a desire to "make a principled point" that it wasn't sound or even possible to try to measure the performance of the sorts of liberal arts programs that AALE accredits with objective measures.

But after department staff members at the December 2006 meeting made clear that the "national discussions" led by the department's political leaders had led the federal agency to focus more on "measurable outcomes," and the advisory panel took the harsh step of essentially recommending a freeze on the AALE’s ability to accredit new institutions, Wallin and his group got with the Bush administration's program.

By the time the group next appeared before the advisory panel, in December 2007, the academy had adopted a new mechanism that required the colleges it accredits to collect and report outcomes each year on at least three quantitative student achievement measures (such as graduation rates, graduate program entrance test scores, enrollment in graduate schools, etc.), and to show how they compare to a selected set of peer institutions. That accountability system was more rigorous, AALE and its supporters pointed out, than most other non-vocational accrediting agencies -- and yet when the agency was set to appear before NACIQI in December 2007, the department's staff members recommended that the advisory panel sustain the freeze on accrediting new members. (The freeze permits the agency to consider members who seek to have an individual program -- like an honors' college -- accredited, but bars it from providing the more coveted "institutional" accreditation that carries with it access to federal student aid.)

When the advisory panel made its recommendation in mid-December, after members of Congress had sent clear signals of displeasure with the department's aggressive push on student learning outcomes, it recommended that Spellings lift the restriction barring the accreditor from examining new colleges, though it also agreed with the staff recommendation that Spellings extend the agency's recognition for only one year, instead of the standard five.

The academy appealed the panel's recommendation, and last March, Jones, then the assistant secretary for postsecondary education, and the counsel for the Office for Postsecondary Education, Sally L. Wanner, responded to the AALE appeal by recommending that Spellings grant recognition to the accrediting group for the full five years and lift the ban on accrediting new members.

"[T]he process AALE has developed for collecting and analyzing student achievement data is novel, innovative and rigorous," Wanner wrote on Jones's behalf. In that and other ways, the officials noted, AALE had come into compliance with the department's findings against it.

What Jones did not say in that memo, but is saying now that she has left the department, is that it seems clear to her that the liberal education accreditor is "being held to a double standard" because the agency originally rebuffed the push by the department's political leaders to embrace standardized measures for assessing the quality of the liberal arts students its colleges generally produced.

"The real question isn't why [AALE's fate] is still hanging in the balance," said Jones, who said that her views on accreditation and the importance of the liberal arts had clearly lost favor among the department's political leaders. "The real question is how they got there in the first place. Why? Because they are a liberal arts accreditor that was seen as not answering the questions the right way."

AALE officials would certainly prefer not to have gotten into these straits in the first place, but for them, the key now is getting out of the predicament. Not only has its situation chased away existing members, but it has deterred would-be candidates for programmatic accreditation.

"A school sees something vague about the agency being denied recognition by the secretary, and it looks awful," said Wallin, AALE's president. "It has clearly injured our reputation, and we're not sure how long it's going to take to repair."

Wallin declined to discuss the financial impact the department's actions have had, but for an accrediting agency, lost members mean lost dues, and dues pay the bills. "The situation is very serious," he said. "We cannot stay in this limbo forever."

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