As expected,  a committee negotiating possible changes to federal rules governing accreditation ended its third and (probably) final meeting Thursday with its members deeply divided on several key issues. The deadlock means that the U.S. Education Department can push ahead with essentially whatever changes it wants.
But in a twist that could not have been foreseen, the significant contention and tension underlying the entire several-month negotiation process took on a new intensity Thursday, with the revelation of a disputed telephone call that some college officials interpreted as an attempt by Education Department officials to intimidate the panel's main dissenting negotiator.
Since February, the federal rule making panel has wrestled with proposals from the Education Department that were widely seen as seeking to fundamentally alter the relationship between the federal government and accreditors and between accreditors and colleges -- and hence, by the transitive property, between the government and colleges.
Exactly how is a complicated tale (which you can read more about here  and here ). But at its core, the department, in carrying out the work of the Secretary of Education’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education,  has pushed accreditors themselves to set minimum standards for the performance of the colleges they oversee, most notably on how much their students learn. Such a change is necessary, department officials have argued, to satisfy the public’s need for a better and clearer sense of how effective higher education is.
Many college officials and accreditors, especially those that monitor nonprofit public and private colleges and professional schools, have responded that such an approach would essentially set explicit federal standards for what counts as quality at institutions, representing an unprecedented level of federal intrusion in academic policy making and altering the traditional role of accreditation as one of self-governance aimed at institutional improvement.
In three meetings over three months, the negotiators crept closer to a middle ground on the learning outcomes issue and others before them, but significant divisions remained. And one particularly contentious debate Wednesday resulted in the remarkable turn of events that unfolded Thursday.
Reaching Out or Applying Pressure?
During Wednesday’s debate,  Judith S. Eaton cast the sole vote against a compromise proposal that would have required accreditors to ensure that the colleges and programs they oversee do not discriminate in their transfer policies against academic credits of students from nationally (rather than regionally) accredited institutions. Because the guidelines governing such negotiating processes dictate that a single negative vote dooms agreement by the panel, Eaton's dissent had a big impact on a measure about which department officials cared deeply.
And not only department officials: The transfer of credit issue has been the top priority for the numerous national accreditors and some of the for-profit college officials on the negotiating panel, and they were furious at Eaton Wednesday because they believed she had misled them into thinking she had signed off on the plan.
Wednesday evening, Eaton, who is president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, which recognizes both regional and national accreditors, received an e-mail message from the lead federal negotiator, Vickie L. Schray, inviting Eaton to call her. Eaton did, and over the course of the 15-minute call, Schray reminded Eaton three times that if her stance on the transfer of credit issue had put her in an uncomfortable position with the for-profit members of her group or left her feeling "boxed in," she had several options under federal negotiating guidelines: stick to her guns, change her vote or resign from the panel.
Eaton revealed the phone call Thursday morning during a private session held by the “non-federal negotiators” (which included all members of the panel except for Schray and other department officials), and reports quickly leaked out to the public and the press that Schray had asked Eaton to resign. When approached by reporters, Schray insisted that the report was inaccurate, adding, “I never asked her that.”
When the negotiating committee reconvened in open session late Thursday morning, Schray said she felt the “need to clarify this publicly,” to ensure there was “no misinformation” about her purposes. Schray had made the call, she said, because after Wednesday’s session, she and other department officials had noted the “anger” being directed at Eaton for her vote on the transfer of credit issue, and “in all honesty, we were very concerned by how distressed” Eaton seemed to be.
Schray added in an interview after the meeting that because Eaton had asked numerous questions Tuesday about what negotiators’ rights and responsibilities were when it came to voting on (and dissenting from) various proposals, Schray had thought Eaton “seemed confused about what her options were.” Schray called Eaton as a “favor” to a colleague she respects, she said.
The Education Department official insisted, both in her public explanation and in the interview afterwards, that while she had mentioned the possibility of resigning during the call, she had told Eaton “at least three times” that she was not “suggesting or encouraging” her to do so. “It was just to let her know what her options were.” (Schray and another department official, David Bergeron, said in the interview that department officials had made a similar call to a participant in a recent negotiation over federal grant programs who was “in a difficult situation and seemed to need advice.”)
After Schray told negotiators about her take on the call, Eaton characterized the conversation somewhat differently.
Schray, Eaton said, “spoke about the importance of [reaching] consensus and the need for agreement” by the panel, and “also indicated that resignation was an option.” Eaton said she had had been “surprised” and “startled” by Schray's multiple references to resignation, because she was not upset as Schray seemed to presume she was. Eaton did not directly challenge Schray’s assertion that the federal official had not asked her to resign, and declined further comment on, or characterization of, Schray’s purpose in making the call.
But some of the other negotiators around the table expressed concerns of their own, though in the mostly polite tones that have characterized the negotiations throughout. Susan Zlotlow, a negotiator who is director of the American Psychological Association’s Office of Program Consultation and Accreditation, said the situation had left her -- as an accreditor whose agency would be coming before the department for recognition -- with the “implication that if we're doing something that the department doesn't like here, that maybe we should resign at this point.” (Schray insisted that nothing of the sort would happen: “This is not punitive. We are negotiating in good faith here.”)
Paula Peinovich, president of Walden University and another negotiator, told Schray that if the department was worried that panel members did not realize that they had multiple options for expressing their views, “that kind of information would have probably have been beneficial to all of us, in a group, rather than singling out individuals.”
Other observers, including college officials who have been closely following the work of the negotiating panel, offered a harsher assessment.
"This is either an unprecedented concern with the emotional well-being of an individual negotiator or an unprecedented effort to get a negotiator to jump overboard so that they can claim consensus,” said Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president for government and public affairs at the American Council on Education. "Given the department's impatience with those who disagree with them, most people will assume that they were trying to get rid of a critic. The department may not have intended this to seem like intimidation, but it sure feels like it."
Schray said she was “disappointed with how [the call] has been characterized,” and said she wanted the group to continue to negotiate in good faith.
But by the time negotiations continued after lunch Thursday, panel members, having already reached "tentative agreement" on a relatively small number of less-controversial issues, were left with several thorny ones that have proved vexing, most notably a set of proposals to alter the federal government's process of recognizing accreditors (in ways that most of the negotiators feel would leave them little due process) and the granddaddy of the issues before the panel: changes in their obligations in measuring and reporting student learning.
Although department officials gave significant ground on the learning outcomes proposal in the panel's preceding meetings and the first two days of this one -- eliminating the requirement that accreditors directly set minimum, "bright line" standards for colleges' vocational and other baccalaureate and first professional programs that lead directly to jobs, for instance -- when the negotiators were finally polled to see whether the group could reach "tentative agreement" on it, two hands went up in dissent.
One belonged to Zlotlow of the psychological association, who said that even as reworked, the proposal would "shift how higher education has operated, how institutions have operated," by forcing an accreditor to evaluate whether the institutions it oversees have performed acceptably, and then putting the government in a position to "evaluate whether it likes the levels set by the accreditor."
The only other dissenter: Eaton, who raised her hand in opposition Thursday just as she had Wednesday.
Moments later, after a broader group of negotiators had expressed their discomfort with the department's proposal on due process guidelines, Schray announced that given the lack of agreement on multiple issues, the department considered the panel to be at an impasse and called for adjournment. Although several negotiators then suggested that the panel members hold a fourth meeting to try to hammer out agreement, and department officials said they would consider the idea, the steam seemed to have gone out of the process.