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A referee in a black and white striped shirt and a black baseball cap, faces away from the camera as he points toward the distance.

jingpixar/Public Domain via RawPixel

Accreditors are center stage in higher education, with the essential task of protecting academic freedom, responsible discourse and institutional autonomy. Our independence and defining characteristics place us in the tough and often unenviable role of referee.

Look at our responsibilities and structures. The Higher Education Act of 2008 mandates that an institution of higher education should facilitate the free and open exchange of ideas. Accreditors—recognized by the U.S. secretary of education through a formal process as reliable authorities on academic quality—each require that institutions honor that central principle. Accreditors’ defining standards for institutional quality are broadly framed, developed with wide and public input, applicable across all types of institutions and viewpoint neutral. We do not and cannot, dictate which ideas are taught and which are not.

Who carries out this sensitive work? Accrediting commissions are nonpartisan, skill-based and not politically appointed. Decisions about colleges’ accreditation and accrediting agency policy are made by commissions composed of peers—leaders, administrators and faculty from varied kinds of colleges and universities—and public representatives, including from business, public service and law.

These accrediting commissions base their careful decisions on the application of standards to the facts of each institution and we announce those decisions to the public. Our own federal recognition as accrediting agencies and the consistency of our actions with our standards, are transparently reviewed by a body (called the National Advisory Council on Institutional Quality and Integrity, NACIQI) that is by law composed of representatives appointed by the secretary of education and both parties in Congress.

In tense and divided times, it’s especially crucial to maintain respect for values and standards. As I watched a bit of March Madness, I thought about the critical work of referees in high-stakes contests.

Like referees, we have a rule book that’s there for everyone to see, and our job is to promote the smooth flow of fair play. There is a rule book for academic freedom and institutional responsibility, too. The governing body sets direction. Faculty decide what content and methods will lead to the knowledge and skills the institution has pledged to develop in its students.

Referees would not let external forces onto the field or court to disrupt play. Let’s be clear: in higher education that includes governing boards when they act beyond their charge, or state or federal executives or legislatures, or parents or donors. While of course we want to avoid overzealous or intrusive refereeing, the best referees and accreditors keep our eyes on the game, ask questions, point to the page of the rule book and even-handedly make the calls.

Sometimes that can mean calling out fiscal fragility that threatens program quality and institutional viability, whether the institution is a small faith-based college, a public university or a respected but now struggling private institution. We may have to impose sanctions on institutions that are beloved in their community.

And sometimes we have to call a technical foul and in rare cases a flagrant foul when our long-standing rules on matters of deep principle are violated. That’s what we signed up for, just like the folks in the striped shirts. It should never matter if it’s the home or away team that violated the rules.

At the risk of getting all Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, there’s a good reason for this. Colleges and universities exist to convey and create knowledge, to explore issues from all sides, to question, debate and challenge. In the words of the University of Chicago’s Kalven Report,

To perform its mission in the society, a university must sustain an extraordinary environment of freedom of inquiry and maintain an independence from political fashions, passions and pressures. A university, if it is to be true to its faith in intellectual inquiry, must embrace, be hospitable to and encourage the widest diversity of views within its own community.

This is the kind of debate we want across our society. We expect it in a Legislature—especially if one’s party is in the minority. It’s the open-minded inquiry that wise religious and community leaders encourage. And it’s the respectful, vigorous exploration of alternative views and strategies that a smart business pursues before making a major investment or change.

Accreditors are used to making tough calls, fairly and independently. We can help promote traditional values of institutional responsibility and academic freedom and break “the cycle of degenerating discourse,” to quote Stanford Law School dean Jenny S. Martinez’s compelling March 22 letter to her campus. This is no time to undercut the historic model of accreditation quality assurance, as some states have done or are considering. In short: respect academic freedom and institutional independence. Let accreditors do our jobs. Muzzling the referees is no way to promote the game.

Jamienne Studley is president of the WASC Senior College and University Commission and chair of the Council on Regional Accrediting Agencies. She was formerly president of Skidmore College and deputy and acting under secretary, acting general counsel, and chair of the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity for the U.S. Department of Education.

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