WASHINGTON — The American Academy for Liberal Education  has withdrawn its petition for renewal of recognition by the U.S. Education Department’s advisory panel on accreditation, which, after having been dismantled  and reconfigured , held its first meeting in over two years Wednesday.
The accreditor’s decision came as a surprise to many in attendance at the first day of meetings held by the new-look National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity . Earlier this week, AALE officials had vowed to fight the Education Department staff’s recommendation that NACIQI urge Education Secretary Arne Duncan to deny recognition for their accreditation body  because of its “continued noncompliance.”
Ralph A. Rossum, chairman of the AALE board and Salvatori Professor of American Constitutionalism at Claremont McKenna College, told Inside Higher Ed that the agency decided to withdraw from the process of seeking renewed recognition because of the lack of time his agency was given by the Education Department to defend itself. He noted that AALE received the final report of Education Department staff members — which contained 45 citations of noncompliance — the Wednesday before Thanksgiving.
Rossum also said AALE officials believed department officials aimed to make an example of the tiny accreditor to prove to other, bigger agencies that the government is serious about holding them more accountable.
“It was the conclusion of the board that, at the end of the day, what was going to happen was that AALE, a small and vulnerable organization, was going to be used by the [Department of Education] to rattle the cage of the regional accreditors,” Rossum said. “We decided we weren’t going to give them that opportunity. If we would have gone through that hearing, we would have been given 20 minutes to state our case. That’s not enough for 45 citations. We weren’t [willing] to be the whipping boy.”
Rossum noted that institutions accredited by AALE will maintain their accreditation for 18 months, starting January 2011. Though he said that AALE would attempt to seek recognition from NACIQI from scratch — and that it was likely this could be accomplished during this 18-month window — he added that AALE-accredited institutions will be given ample notice if it becomes evident that they should seek accreditation from another agency.
“We’re going to seek accreditation in the future once the policies of the [Department of Education] have been established with more muscle and resources,” Rossum said. “We’re not happy with this, and we wish we could be there now. But, we knew what the conclusion was going to be and thought that would damage us more than this already has.”
NACIQI officials offered no comment on AALE’s decision to withdraw.
In AALE’s absence from the NACIQI meeting, Rossum said he expects the committee will turn up the heat on the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools’ Higher Learning Commission, which was the subject of a highly critical report  by the inspector general's office of the U.S. Education Department earlier this year. The HLC is scheduled to appear before the committee today to present a compliance report.
The remainder of Wednesday’s action at the NACIQI meeting was relatively unsurprising to many observers in the audience. Still, the group is being watched by many to see how it will handle matters under its new configuration and with the Obama administration's clearly expressed interest in and concern about  the viability and future of accreditation.
Eduardo M. Ochoa, assistant secretary for postsecondary education, said in his opening remarks Wednesday that the Education Department would be taking a close look at accreditation leading up to the 2013 reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. He told Inside Higher Ed that he was unsure, at this early date, what exactly the department would consider or propose.
A subcommittee of NACIQI focused specifically on the 2013 renewal of the Higher Education Act has been formed and met Wednesday. Its discussion, however, was closed to the public.