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Accrediting agencies are facing intense scrutiny from academics, policy makers and the general public, with the latest salvo being the decision by Northwestern University’s school of journalism and communications to ditch its accreditor.

The Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications used some fiery words in explaining the move to voluntarily drop its specialized accreditor, the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications (ACEJMC), which was reported Tuesday by the Chicago Tribune.

“As we near the 2020s, we expect far better than a 1990s-era accreditation organization that resists change -- especially as education and careers in our field evolve rapidly,” said Brad Hamm, Medill’s dean, in a message to alumni. “All fields benefit from a world-class review process, and unfortunately the gap between ACEJMC today and what it could, and should, be is huge.”

Likewise, he blamed the accreditor for impeding innovation at Medill by restricting its curriculum and the ability of students to take courses in other schools at the university.

Medill is one of the nation’s most selective media industry schools, with programs for both undergraduates and graduate students. Northwestern retains its regional accreditation, so Medill students will continue to be eligible to receive federal financial aid.

Much of the broader conversation about accreditation revolves around institutional accreditors, both national and regional, that serve as the gatekeepers for federal financial aid. Criticism tends to focus on whether the agencies are doing enough to prevent fraud and to push colleges to improve graduation and job-placement rates.

Yet specialized accreditors have felt heat as well. Some have questioned the value they add, especially outside medical fields and other disciplines where specialized groups assure the public that graduates of a given program can be considered for licensure. And the tension over innovation at Medill is familiar to most accreditors, as their role of by-the-books regulators of quality often conflicts with encouraging innovation. Some of the criticism of accreditors also comes from prestigious institutions, which feel they deserve less scrutiny than open-access colleges with more worrisome track records.

“This is part of a re-evaluation that’s happening in the education space and in accreditation,” said Judith Eaton, president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, which recognizes ACEJMC. “The focus on innovation is there across the board.”

Medill is not alone in leaving ACEJMC. The Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, also recently opted to drop the accreditor.

Edward Wasserman, that school’s dean, said Berkeley made the decision in part because it is enrolls only graduate students. Most of the roughly 115 or so journalism and communications programs overseen by ACEJMC offer undergraduate degrees.

“My basic feeling is that accreditation is a valuable process for undergraduate programs, where it sets standards that negotiate wisely between academic and pre-professional learning objectives,” Wasserman said via email. “Berkeley's program is a stand-alone, two-year, graduate level-only journalism boutique, which is subject to continuous self-examination, generated both by a restless internal culture of self-improvement and a stern and demanding campus and university.”

Protecting Students

The loss of two prestigious schools is a blow to the journalism and communications school accreditor, which still oversees selective programs like Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s School of Media and Journalism.

Hamm was less accommodating than Wasserman with his take on ACEJMC, calling the accreditation process a superficial, costly distraction.

“Investing 18 months and hundreds of hours of faculty and staff time within the current flawed system is not useful,” he said.

The accreditor’s leadership disagreed with Hamm’s assessment, saying Medill had made a risky decision by forgoing peer review and established outside quality control based on unfair and inaccurate criticism. (In a letter released Wednesday, the group challenged statements by Hamm it called factually incorrect and misleading.)

“Ultimately it hurts students,” said Peter Bhatia, editor and vice president of audience engagement for the Cincinnati Enquirer, who is the ACEJMC’s president, “and that’s ultimately what accreditation is about, ensuring the best experience for students.”

Bhatia also differed with Hamm on the innovation question.

He said the accreditor in recent years had adjusted its standards to allow more students to take courses and to pursue second majors in other disciplines, like business, by reducing the number of credits that students are required to earn within a journalism and communications program. The accreditor also has sought to help the institutions it oversees add more training in digital media.

“We had to give students more flexibility precisely to encourage innovation,” said Bhatia. “We are holding schools accountable for preparing students for the digital workplace.”

The decision’s cost to Medill and its students will be minimal, Hamm said, arguing that student recruitment or hiring “have never been affected by whether a school is accredited in our field.”

But students and faculty members could feel some impact, such as being ineligible for outside activities that are open only to participants from accredited schools. For example, Hamm acknowledged that Medill students may no longer be able to apply for Hearst Journalism Awards, which are among the most prestigious honors for student journalists.

If social media is any guide (it often is for working journalists), Medill's move failed to gin up much panic. And that suggests few alums care much about their school's accreditation status.

Risk-Adjusted Accreditation?

Some academics at other universities applauded Medill’s move.

Accreditation for journalism and communication schools needs a radical shake-up, said Jeff Jarvis, a professor at the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism.

“I don’t see how accreditation supports innovation and change,” he said, adding that both are badly needed in the fast-moving media industry.

Jarvis said CUNY has benefited from the self-evaluation ACEJMC requires. Yet he said that was work CUNY could do just as well on its own.

“We push ourselves harder on innovation than any accreditor,” Jarvis said, adding that journalism schools themselves are better positioned to decide how to adjust to a changing job market. “I can imagine quality accreditation. But I don’t think it would look like this.”

Michael Poliakoff agreed, extending that criticism to institutional accreditation. Poliakoff, who is president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni and a former member of the federal panel that oversees accrediting agencies, said Medill's move is a sign that colleges are beginning to demand deregulation of a broken system. He called the traditional model byzantine, costly and time-consuming, with only a marginal guarantee of educational quality.

"Accreditors have severely damaged their own brand," he said in a written statement, "and policy makers now have an opportunity and an obligation to create a new, transparency-based model of quality assurance."

Criticism about accreditors not doing enough to prevent colleges from taking advantage of students typically focuses on for-profits or, less often, community colleges with relatively low graduation rates.

For example, the U.S. Department of Education under President Obama, with the strong backing of Senator Elizabeth Warren and other Democrats in the U.S. Senate, in January finalized its decision to terminate the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, a national accreditor that oversees 245 colleges, most of them for-profits. The Trump administration last weekend defended that decision.

However, the Obama administration also prodded accreditors to spend less time scrutinizing high-quality colleges, instead placing more attention on colleges that have had problems with finances or student achievement.

This approach, called risk-adjusted accreditation, has long been pushed by Princeton University and other highly selective colleges. It has the backing of some higher education associations, including the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities.

Likewise, some powerful Republicans, including Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who leads the Senate’s education committee, have considered risk-adjusted accreditation. Others have backed giving more flexibility to states, allowing them to opt out of the federally sanctioned accreditation system and to instead set up their own rules for quality control.

“Institutions should not be given a free pass, but differentiated reviews, if developed thoughtfully, should be equally as reliable and uphold accreditation’s serious responsibilities in quality assurance,” Alexander wrote in a 2015 white paper.

Some community college leaders, however, have worried about risk-based accreditation being a sort of caste system, where wealthy colleges get to avoid scrutiny while cash-strapped two-year institutions have to jump through more hoops.

Medill referenced its selectivity in defending the decision to ditch ACEJMC.

The school “ranks among the best in the world,” Hamm said in his message to alumni, adding that “I believe we can have a strong impact at this time through our actions, and top schools as Medill should lead where possible.”

For its part, Berkeley’s Wasserman said the Graduate School of Journalism, after leaving its accreditor, had continued “rigorous and revealing” external reviews, which the UC system requires.

“So we get plenty of people kicking our tires, and learn a good deal from them,” he said.

Bhatia said ACEJMC would continue to improve its processes, such as through annual tweaks to its standards.

And while he respects Medill and Hamm, Bhatia said, “I wish he had chosen to work with us to make things better.”

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