In the latest move in its multifaceted effort to remake higher education accreditation,  and higher education in general, the Bush administration has appointed to the Education Department's panel that reviews accrediting agencies a critic who has advocated more or less junking the current federal system of academic quality review.
The selection of Anne D. Neal, executive director of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, is one of several that department officials have made in recent months to the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity  (known as NACIQI, or "nuh-SEE-key").
Department officials have come to view accreditation, higher education's system of self-regulation and quality control, as an important pressure point for carrying out many of the recommendations of the Secretary of Education's Commission on the Future of Higher Education.  That's because accrediting agencies have influence over the vast majority of colleges and programs, and because the department, through the NACIQI panel, has the ability to judge the performance of accreditors. That approval is crucial, because without it, an accreditor’s stamp of approval of a college does not carry with it the all-important right for the institution’s students to receive federal financial aid.
Over the past year, the department panel has already begun altering the standards it uses to judge accreditors,  urging them to set "bright line" minimum standards for the colleges they oversee to meet, to prove how successfully they are educating their students. College leaders and accreditors have criticized that push, accusing the department of prodding the advisory committee to change its standards before the department has proposed or instituted regulations that would formally enact such changes. A federal negotiating session aimed at reaching agreement on possible new accrediting regulations ended without consensus on key issues last week,  although negotiators plan to meet one final day next month to try to resolve their differences. Through that same negotiating session, political leaders in the Education Department also sought to give NACIQI significantly more power to investigate accreditors, and to do so more regularly.
The perceived changes in NACIQI's mission and authority have been accompanied (and perhaps hastened) by a significant remaking of the panel's membership. Recent rounds of appointments to the 15-member committee have tilted its rolls in noteworthy ways:
- Four of the panel's 15 members are Texans (details on some of them below). While that has come to be seen (or at least stereotyped) as standard operating procedure in the Bush administration, that works out to 27 percent of the panel's members, when 7 percent of college students nationally are from Texas.
- Three recent appointees (Andrea Fischer Newman,  a University of Michigan regent, and H. James Towey, president of Pennsylvania's Saint Vincent College), and Pamela Willeford (one of the Texans) have close political ties to President Bush. Towey was until 2006 director of the White House Office of Faith-Based & Community Initiatives,  Newman was vice chair of President Bush's election campaign in Michigan in 2000, and Willeford headed the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board while Bush was governor and served the president as U.S. ambassador to Switzerland and Liechtenstein from 2003-6. (Willeford also has the most entertaining biographical detail of any of the panel's members, new or old: She was the third member of the hunting team last year  when Vice President Dick Cheney mistakenly shot the other member of the trio.)
- Two recent appointees (Geri H. Malandra, a top official of the University of Texas System, and Patrick Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education) served as advisers to Charles Miller as chairman of the secretary's higher education commission.
- Three members (20 percent of NACIQI's total) represent for-profit higher education, at a time when about 7 percent of all students attend institutions in that sector.
Presidential administrations are completely within their rights, of course, to appoint like-minded people to federal committees and commissions, and some of the accrediting panel's new members are accomplished people with significant knowledge about higher education. But for some college officials, the selection of Anne Neal, who worked as a lawyer in the Reagan White House and as a top aide to Lynne V. Cheney at the National Endowment for the Humanities under President George H.W. Bush, crosses beyond appropriate political and even partisan appointment-making into ideological intrusion.
That's because Neal has so outspokenly criticized accreditation -- to the point of calling for an end to the current system of federal recognition of accreditors that she will now be a part of. In a 2003 report  by the organization she heads, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, Neal and a co-author argued bluntly that "accreditation has not served to ensure quality, has not protected the curriculum from serious degradation, and gives students, parents, and public decision-makers almost no useful information about institutions of higher education."
The solution to that perceived failure, they argued, is that the "federal government should sever the connection between accreditation and eligibility for student financial aid." Such an approach, Neal argued there and in 2006 testimony before the Spellings Commission,  would end "the mandatory federal accreditation process," which has given accrediting agencies "enormous leverage without clear and comparable benefit to students or the public."
Critics said they found Neal's appointment odd and troubling, given her views. "You'd think that anybody who's serving on an advisory committee in this capacity would be somebody who recognizes and values the role of private accrediting and how important it has been in building our system of higher education," said Craig Smith, associate director of higher education for the American Federation of Teachers, which has frequently sparred with Neal  over ACTA's policies on the curriculum and other matters.
"We'd hope that people coming to these committees would have general respect for the longstanding policy of federal non-intervention in academic matters, and with Ms. Neal, we would be very skeptical of that. Her organization has repeatedly shown that they think government should get involved in academic matters, and she has a very clear ideological agenda that would worry us on a committee like this."
In an interview, Neal acknowledged her previously expressed views and said she suspected they were what had drawn the attention of the Education Department officials who appointed her to the accreditation advisory panel. "ACTA has certainly been on record raising fairly serious concerns about accreditation," she said in an interview Monday.
Neal said, though, that her "opinions about the failure of the accreditation system as we know it" and recommendations about how to overhaul it would not interfere with her ability to serve appropriately on the NACIQI panel.
"Separate and apart from the commentary we have made about the system as it has operated in the past, that system is still in place, and NACIQI is responsible for ensuring as much quality as possible and accrediting the accreditors," Neal said. "Obviously those who serve are bound by the regulations that apply" to the committee, and "I intend to familiarize myself with those regulations and the proper framework within which we have to operate. We'll be working within that framework."
A spokeswoman for the Education Department noted in an e-mail message that the Higher Education Act gives the education secretary the authority to appoint all 15 members of the accreditation panel, and that the law "specifies that members should be representatives of, or knowledgeable concerning, education and training beyond secondary education, including representatives of all sectors and type of institutions of higher education, as well as a student representative."
The spokeswoman, Samara Yudof, added: "The Secretary's appointments to NACIQI further strengthen this well-rounded group that holds a wide variety of views and perspectives while representing key stakeholders, including academia, trustees, public, private, faith-based and for-profit institutions, and businesses, among others. Having a strong, well-diversified board helps to protect the public's interests."
College leaders do not seem to share the department's view that the appointees are well-rounded. In a wide-ranging letter this month to Congressional leaders laying out their priorities for legislation extending the Higher Education Act,  15 major higher education groups included an item relating to ideological balance on the accreditation advisory committee.
Acknowledging the current selection process, the groups suggested that "the NACIQI appointment process should be consistent with the general procedure for nominations to other federal advisory boards such as the Advisory Committee on Federal Student Aid. Having nominations from the Congress as well as the Secretary would assure that a greater diversity of views is reflected in the panel’s deliberations than is now the case."
The current NACIQI members, and their department-defined affiliations, are:
- Carol D'Amico, (NACIQI Chair), Executive Vice President, Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana
- Geri H. Malandra, (NACIQI Vice Chair), Vice Chancellor for Strategic Management, University of Texas System
- Karen A. Bowyer, President, Dyersburg State Community College, Tennessee
- Patrick Callan, President, National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education
- Lawrence J. DeNardis, President Emeritus, University of New Haven
- William P. Glasgow, CEO, American Way Education, Austin, Tex.
- Arthur Keiser, Chancellor, Keiser Collegiate System, Fla.
- Anne Neal, President, American Council of Trustees and Alumni, Washington
- Andrea Fischer-Newma, Chair, Board of Regents, University of Michigan; Senior Vice President, Government Affairs, Northwest Airlines
- Laura Palmer Noone, President Emerita, University of Phoenix, Arizona
- George A. Pruitt, President, Thomas Edison State College, New Jersey
- Crystal Rimoczy, Student Member, Boston College, Massachusetts
- H. James Towey, President, Saint Vincent College, Latrobe, Pa.
- Pamela P. Willeford, Former Chair, Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board; Former Ambassador, Switzerland
- George Wright, President, Prairie View A & M University, Texas