Innovation in higher education, I sometimes think, is a bit like the weather. Everybody talks about it, but nobody does anything about it.
Every six months or so, as some new conference or other on the future of higher education heaves into view, I’ll get a call asking if I can list any and all recent innovations in higher education. The people on the other end of the line seem to feel that these innovations must surely be out there, so they make phone calls looking for them. But they always seem disappointed when I resort to listing the usual suspects: online universities, open educational resources, commercial ventures looking to partner with institutions. That’s not innovation, the people on the other end of the line seem to be saying. And in many respects, I agree with them. We haven’t yet seen anything truly game-changing, have we?
In recent months, the focus on innovation in higher education has turned to “disruptive innovation,” that concept originally formulated over a decade ago by Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen to describe change and innovation across numerous industries, but which he has more recently begun applying to education. Now everybody wants to know where the disruptive innovations in higher education are hiding.
For his part, Christensen points to online learning. But even by the standards established by Christensen’s own theory (where disruptive innovations are easier to use, cheaper, and serve new audiences), the case for online learning as a disruptive innovation is equivocal.
Is it a simpler, easier-to-use product? In some respects, but not all.
Is it less expensive to deliver? Outside of a few grant-program case studies, not particularly; the potential may be there, but it has yet to be fully realized.
Is it reaching a new audience? Probably, yes, but the evidence is mostly indirect and approximate.
Of course, there’s a reason why we don’t actually see much in the way of real innovation in higher education, and Christensen understands this. Incumbent leaders in mature industries engage in what Christensen calls “sustaining innovation” – the development of new features and benefits that make a product or service more useful, but not dramatically so. Think, for example, of the addition of a camera on the iPad2. With an increase in benefits, prices typically rise as well. What keeps pricing in balance in most industries, however, are those disruptive innovations – think of the personal computers that supplanted the mainframes decades ago. These cheaper and easier to use tools attract new audiences to the category and refashion the economics of the industry’s business model.
While colleges and universities may well engage in some sustaining innovations (the high-rise dormitories, the state-of-the-art fitness centers, the not-entirely-mythical rock climbing walls, not mention the world-class science labs and other high-tech investments), the fact is that they face little in the way of disruptive innovation because they have a lock on the market – it’s called accreditation – and thus there’s little opportunity for new entrants to come in and offer something less expensive or simpler to use.
To my mind, if you’re looking for an innovation opportunity, technology is just a part of the story. The real innovation – in price, in ease of use, in access – will occur when our colleges and universities face some real competition, and that will only come when we allow some new, entrepreneurial providers into the market.
If you want innovation, I say, remove the barriers.
To that end, I’d like to propose that the U.S. Department of Education establish a new “demonstration program,” not unlike the Distance Learning Demonstration Program of the past. That former program allowed institutions that delivered a majority of their programs online to distribute Title IV funds. Twenty-four institutions – a mix of nonprofits and for-profits – participated in the program. Along the way, we learned something important about the potential for scale within online learning; and today, one in four college students has taken at least one course online.
Now we need something a little different, but based on the same model – call it the “Innovation Demonstration Program.” In this case, the program will charter new organizations to offer degrees and distribute Title IV funds – even if they lack accreditation. That has the potential to open up real innovation within multiple segments of the marketplace.
Commercial organizations that offer tutoring services, curriculum, or learning technologies could get into the degree granting business and even make federal financial aid available to their students.
At the same time, established institutions might see this as a terrific opportunity to build new degree-granting organizations adjacent their own traditional campuses – unencumbered by the regulatory and governance hurdles that currently stymie their attempts to reach new markets, deliver new programs, or otherwise rethink how they do business.
It will, of course, be necessary to guard against the potential for new diploma mills entering the market and targeting federal dollars, but that’s where the regulatory apparatus becomes useful. It can both foreclose fraud and stimulate innovation at the same time. Under the kind of close supervision that a federal demonstration program would require, a few dozen experiments of this sort could teach us a great deal about what’s really possible when it comes to innovation in higher education.
If you think this sounds absurd, consider the case of the Relay Graduate School of Education, granted a charter by the New York State Board of Regents earlier this year to offer master’s degrees to teachers in New York. Founded by three charter school organizations – KIPP, Achievement First, and Uncommon Schools – the Relay Graduate School of Education was purpose-built to meet the education and professional development needs of those schools’ own teachers.
Along the way, Relay did something innovative. It tore up the semester model. In its place, Relay delivers 60 discrete learning modules. Students learn in the context of the schools in which they teach, and online curriculum is augmented by cohort discussions within the schools, all under the supervision of on-site mentors. This is a very different way of thinking about delivering education – and it’s innovative.
What makes it innovative isn’t that there’s technology involved – it’s really a very people-centered learning model – it’s that the organization is free to rethink the “why” and “how” of teacher professional development. Equally important, the oversight of the Board of Regents puts Relay on a level playing field with all of the other traditional providers of master’s degrees in education within the state of New York. Now ask yourself why the same thing shouldn’t be happening in disciplines such as business, engineering, computer science, health care, and numerous other fields, and on a national scale.
There is, after all, another key element in Christensen’s theory of disruptive innovation. It happens at the margins, and it happens within organizations that are free from the obligations of established incumbents. One of the great misunderstandings regarding Christensen’s theory, in my view, is that we can all disruptively innovate ourselves. But Christensen himself points out that the only companies that have successfully accomplished that feat have done so by establishing separate, discrete R&D units free of the pressures of the parent organization’s business model, customer demands, profit targets and more. The reality is, more often than not, that disruptive innovations put established incumbents out of business. That, after all, is what makes them disruptive.
If traditional higher education wants to innovate – if it realizes that it must – then that innovation will have to take place in the margins, free from the demands of traditional culture, regulation, and financial models. An Innovation Demonstration Program would allow us a chance to see just how much invention is in us, and how far we can go in lowering prices, increasing access, and educating the nation.
Peter Stokes is executive vice president of Eduventures, a higher education consulting firm.
Do majors matter? Since students typically spend more time in their area of concentration than anywhere else in the curriculum, majors ought to live up to their name and produce really major benefits. But do they?
Anthony P. Carnevale, the Director of Georgetown’s Center for Education and the Workforce, had recently provided a clear answer. Majors matter a lot -- a lot of dollars and cents. In a report entitled “What’s it Worth,” he shows how greatly salaries vary by major, from $120,000 on average for petroleum engineers down to $29,000 for counseling psychologists.
But what if one asked whether majors make differing contributions to students’ cognitive development? The answer is once again yes, but the picture looks very different from the one in the Georgetown study.
A few years ago, Paul Sotherland, a biologist at Kalamazoo College in Michigan, asked an unnecessary question and got not an answer but a tantalizing set of new questions. It was unnecessary because most experts in higher education already knew the answer, or thought they did: as far as higher-order cognitive skills are concerned, it doesn’t matter what you teach; it’s how you teach it.
What Sotherland found challenged that conventional wisdom and raised new questions about the role of majors in liberal education. Here’s what he did. Kalamazoo had been using the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA) to track its students’ progress in critical thinking and analytical reasoning. After a few years it become clear that Kalamazoo students were making impressive gains from their first to their senior years. Sotherland wondered if those gains were across the board or varied from field to field.
Since gains in CLA scores tend to follow entering ACT or SAT scores, they “corrected” the raw data to see what gains might be attributed to instruction. They found significant differences among the divisions, with the largest gains (over 200 points) in foreign languages, about half that much in the social sciences, still less in the fine arts and in the humanities, least of all in the natural sciences .
How was this to be explained? Could reading Proust somehow hone critical thinking more than working in the lab? (Maybe so.)
But the sample size was small and came from one exceptional institution, one where students in all divisions did better than their SAT scores would lead one to expect, and where the average corrected gain on CLA is 1.5 standard deviations, well above the national average. (Perhaps Inside Higher Ed should sponsor the “Kalamazoo Challenge,” to see if other institutions can show even better results in their CLA data.)
The obvious next step was to ask Roger Benjamin of the Collegiate Learning Assessment if his associates would crunch some numbers for me. They obliged, with figures showing changes over four years for both parts of the CLA -- the performance task and analytical writing. Once again, the figures were corrected on the basis of entering ACT or SAT scores.
The gains came in clusters. At the top was sociology, with an average gain of just over 0.6 standard deviations. Then came multi- and interdisciplinary studies, foreign languages, physical education, math, and business with gains of 0.50 SDs or more.
The large middle cluster included (in descending order) education, health-related fields, computer and information sciences, history, psychology, law enforcement, English, political science, biological sciences, and liberal and general studies.
Behind them, with gains between 0.30 and 0.49 SDs, came communications (speech, journalism, television, radio etc.), physical sciences, nursing, engineering, and economics. The smallest gain (less than 0.01 standard deviations) was in architecture.
The list seemed counterintuitive to me when I first studied it, just as the Kalamazoo data had. In each case, ostensibly rigorous disciples, including most of the STEM disciplines (the exception was math) had disappointing results. Once again the foreign languages shone, while most other humanistic disciplines cohabited with unfamiliar bedfellows such as computer science and law enforcement. Social scientific fields scattered widely, from sociology at the very top to economics close to the bottom.
When one looks at these data, one thing is immediately clear. The fields that show the greatest gains in critical thinking are not the fields that produce the highest salaries for their graduates. On the contrary, engineers may show only small gains in critical thinking, but they often command salaries of over $100,000. Economists may lag as well, but not at salary time, when, according to “What’s It Worth” their graduates enjoy median salaries of $70,000. At the other end majors in sociology and French, German and other commonly taught foreign languages may show impressive gains, but they have to be content with median salaries of $45,000.
But what do these data tell us about educational practice? It seems unlikely that one subject matter taken by itself has a near-magical power to result in significant cognitive gains while another does nothing of the sort. If that were the case, why do business majors show so much more progress than economics majors? Is there something in the content of a physical education major (0.50 SDs) that makes it inherently more powerful than a major in one of the physical sciences (0.34 SDs)? I doubt it.
Since part of the CLA is based on essays students write during the exam, perhaps the natural science majors simply had not written enough to do really well on the test. (That’s the usual first reaction, I find, to unexpected assessment results -- "there must be something wrong with the test.") That was, however, at best a partial explanation, since it didn’t account for the differences among the other fields. English majors, for example, probably write a lot of papers, but their gains were no greater than those of students in computer sciences or health-related fields.
Another possibility is that certain fields attract students who are ready to hone their critical thinking skills. If so, it would be important to identify what it is in each of those fields that attract such students to it. Are there, for example, “signature pedagogies” that have this effect? If so, what are they and how can their effects be maximized? Or is it that certain pedagogical practices, whether or not they attract highly motivated students, increase critical thinking capacities – and others as well? For example, the Wabash national study has identified four clusters of practices that increase student engagement and learning in many areas (good teaching and high-quality interactions with faculty, academic challenge and high expectations, diversity experiences, and higher-order, integrative, and reflective learning).
Some fields, moreover, may encourage students to “broaden out” -- potentially important for the development of critical thinking capacities as one Kalamazoo study suggests. Other disciplines may discourage such intellectual range.
One other hypothesis, I believe, also deserves closer consideration. The CLA is a test of post-formal reasoning. That is, it does not seek to find out if students know the one right answer to the problems it sets; on the contrary, it rewards the ability to consider the merits of alternative approaches. That suggests that students who develop the habit of considering alternative viewpoints, values and outcomes and regularly articulate and weigh alternative possibilities may have an advantage when taking the CLA exam, and quite possibly in real-life settings as well.
Since the study of foreign languages constantly requires the consideration of such alternatives, their study may provide particularly promising venues for the development of such capacities. If so, foreign languages have a special claim on attention and resources even in a time of deep budgetary cuts. Their "signature pedagogies," moreover, may provide useful models for other disciplines.
These varying interpretations of the CLA data open up many possibilities for improving students’ critical thinking. But will these possibilities be fully utilized without new incentives? The current salary structure sends a bad signal when it puts the money where students make very small gains in critical thinking, and gives scant reward to fields that are high performers in this respect . (For example, according to the College & University Professional Association for Human Resources, full professors in engineering average over $114,000, while those in foreign languages average just over $85,000.
Isn’t it time to shift some resources to encourage experimentation in all fields to develop the cognitive as well as the purely financial benefits of the major?
W. Robert Connor
W. Robert Connor is senior advisor to the Teagle Foundation.
In response, accreditation and higher education officials have questioned the legitimacy of a number of the commission’s criticisms and pointed to the successful history and considerable capacity of accreditation as a reliable authority on higher education quality. Other officials are shrugging off the commission’s conversation with a “this too shall pass” response.
But just as it would be a mistake for the commission to ignore or sideline accreditation as a force for quality, it would be a mistake for the accreditation and higher education communities to ignore the concerns and calls for change from the commission. All of us who believe in the importance and ultimate value of accreditation need to take seriously what we have heard.
That doesn’t mean that I agree with all of what’s been said in the commission’s deliberations to “improve accreditation” or to “transform accreditation” -- especially when these comments are based on an (erroneous) perception of accreditation as a failed system. But, I do think that we should heed some of the criticism -- calls for accreditation to pay more attention to institutional performance and student learning outcomes, to additional transparency, to increased rigor in accreditation standards (moving toward “world class”) and to expanded support for innovation, especially in the for-profit sector.
There is an additional -- and quite worrisome -- call from the commission: to aggressively nationalize the accreditation and quality discussion, captured by concepts such as the “National Accreditation Foundation,” the “National Accreditation Working Group,” the “National Accreditation Framework” in the commission documents. These constructs are cause for concern because they can easily lead to a single set of national standards by which to judge all of higher education quality or can lead to federalizing of accreditation, expanding direct federal control and prescriptiveness with regard to standards, policy and practice.
Short of nationalizing or federalizing, accreditation has a good deal of capacity in place so that we are and can continue to be responsive to some of these calls and sustain our leadership in academic quality. Accreditors have already done much work in some of these areas, such as more attention to student learning outcomes and institutional performance in accreditation standards and transparency. The Council for Higher Education Accreditation and the U.S. Department of Education, the two external review bodies that scrutinize accreditation for quality (because they “recognize” accreditors), have standards that include expectations that accreditors will address these and other issues, such as innovation and public participation.
I think nationalizing or federalizing accreditation would take us down the wrong road. But I also part ways with some of my colleagues in accreditation and higher education, from whom we’re hearing comments like “leave us alone,” “trust us” and “you don’t understand us.” Some are saying that an accreditation change agenda should proceed -- but should consist only of changes we like on a timetable acceptable to us. There is little acknowledgment that, in today’s society, a self-regulatory enterprise such as accreditation may now require a higher level of evidence and transparency than we are currently providing. There are few nods to the importance of additional effort to sustain faith and trust in the enterprise.
Yet it is all too easy to envisage a scenario in which either nationalization, federalization, loss of leadership or loss of faith and trust might come about. Suppose, for example, that the calls from the commission continue to gather attention and support. Suppose that the pace of change established by accreditation is simply not swift enough to constitute a viable response. Suppose that actors in the private sector step in and develop new mechanisms to gather information about higher education quality in a more transparent and evidence-based way, sidelining accreditation. Even worse, the federal government might decide that it can proceed with federalizing a “single set of standards” approach to quality, even within the current legal and regulatory framework provided by the current Higher Education Act.
There is an alternative scenario. We in accreditation and higher education can use the commission as a constructive external stimulus. We can acknowledge the commission’s message, making sure that we are the leaders for change. It is in our best interest to convert the national attention that the commission has brought to accreditation from a negative to a positive.
For example, accreditation and higher education can commit to progressive proposals that address several of the commission’s calls. We can agree to:
Accelerate the current accreditation emphasis on evidence of institutional performance and student learning outcomes, assuring that the language of accreditation standards converts into energetic development and use of evidence of the results of teaching and learning.
Break the current impasse in our debate on additional transparency about accredited status, committing ourselves to more fully inform the public about what it means to be accredited: What are institutional strengths? What might be improved? What does an accreditation review tell students about the services they receive from an institution?
Build national capacity for comparability of the key features of accredited institutions and programs, agreeing to a small set of indicators of quality that the public can use to compare institutions.
Focus on moving from threshold accreditation standards to greater rigor, especially as this relates to general education and the undergraduate curriculum, as part of a national effort to increase global competitiveness.
Making progress on such proposals will not be easy. First, it will require that accreditation and higher education give greater priority to directly serving the public interest than in the past. Second, we will need to confront the all-too-human tendencies toward complacency, defensiveness and resistance to change. Third and most important, it may require that accreditors and higher education leaders alike face fundamental questions about how much we value and support a strengthened accreditation system. Accreditation will have limited capacity to change unless higher education supports such efforts.
We need public faith and trust in accreditation as a force for quality in the future. We need to sustain and enhance our leadership for academic quality. We need to consider some changes in the conduct of the business of our enterprise.
Judith S. Eaton
Judith S. Eaton is president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, an association of 3,000 colleges and universities that recognizes 60 institutional and programmatic accrediting organizations.
A recent report released by the Secretary of Education’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education recommends some major changes in the way accreditation operates in the United States. Perhaps the most significant of these is a proposal that a new accrediting framework “require institutions and programs to move toward world-class quality” using best practices and peer institution comparisons on a national and world basis. Lovely words, and utterly fatal to the proposal.
The principal difficulty with this lofty goal is that outside of a few rarefied contexts, most people do not want our educational standards to get higher. They want the standards to get lower. The difficulty faced by the commission is that public commissions are not allowed to say this out loud because we who make policy and serve in leadership roles are supposed to pretend that people want higher standards.
In fact, postsecondary education for most people is becoming a commodity. Degrees are all but generic, except for those people who want to become professors or enter high-income professions and who therefore need to get their degrees from a name-brand graduate school.
The brutal truth is that higher standards, applied without regard for politics or any kind of screeching in the hinterlands, would result in fewer colleges, fewer programs, and an enormous decrease in the number and size of the schools now accredited by national accreditors. The commission’s report pretends that the concept of regional accreditation is outmoded and that accreditors ought to in essence be lumped together in the new Great Big Accreditor, which is really Congress in drag.
This idea, when combined with the commitment to uniform high standards set at a national or international level, results in an educational cul-de-sac: It is not possible to put the Wharton School into the same category as a nationally accredited degree-granting business college and say “aspire to the same goals.”
The commission attempts to build a paper wall around this problem by paying nominal rhetorical attention to the notion of differing institutional missions. However, this is a classic question-begging situation: if the missions are so different, why should the accreditor be the same for the sake of sameness? And if all business schools should aspire to the same high standards based on national and international norms, do we need the smaller and the nationally accredited business colleges at all?
The state of Oregon made a similar attempt to establish genuine, meaningful standards for all high school graduates starting in 1991 and ending, for most purposes, in 2006, with little but wasted money and damaged reputations to show for it. Why did it fail? Statements of educational quality goals issued by the central bureaucracy collided with the desire of communities to have every student get good grades and a diploma, whether or not they could read, write or meet minimal standards. Woe to any who challenge the Lake Wobegon Effect.
So let us watch the commission, and its Congressional handlers, as it posits a nation and world in which the desire for higher standards represents what Americans want. This amiable fiction follows in a long history of such romans a clef written by the elite, for the elite and of the elite while pretending to be what most people want. They have no choice but to declare victory, but the playing field will not change.
Alan L. Contreras
Alan L. Contreras has been administrator of the Oregon Office of Degree Authorization, a unit of the Oregon Student Assistance Commission, since 1999. His views do not necessarily represent those of the commission.
In more than 30 years of involvement in accreditation and postsecondary education, I have rarely seen a body of any kind stimulate so much debate, discussion and review as the Secretary of Education's Commission on the Future of Higher Education.
This is probably to be expected, given the seriousness with which the Secretary is following the deliberations of the commission, the quality of its members, and the sometimes provocative proposals that have emerged, particularly with respect to accreditation.
Judith S. Eaton, president of the Council of Higher Education Accreditation, suggested in these pages an aggressive response, noting that "actors in the private sector [could] step in and develop new mechanisms to gather information about higher education quality in a more transparent and evidence-based way, sidelining accreditation."
Eaton makes a strong case for change in the "conduct of the business of our enterprise," but I believe a great deal of calm and dispassionate debate is in order before recommending change.
First some context. The relationship between government and accrediting agencies is that of partners -- wary partners, but partners. (For those who want a little more background on why this is so, please follow this link.) There is a dynamic equilibrium in effect, ensuring that if change is to take place, it will be done responsibly, with careful review, and with the input of the entire postsecondary community.
Viewing the commission’s proposals through that prism, a federal accrediting system that is not of the academy itself, that does not enjoy the confidence of the schools being visited, would quickly reduce to a regulatory system, and a regulatory system will simply not work. Schools are open and frank when talking to colleagues; regulators never learn about limitations and deficiencies that are regularly discussed with accreditors. Federally operated accreditation would be adversarial in nature and would not allow the professional judgment that is so central to higher education. When we take into account the possibility of political input, it is clear that federal accreditation will fail.
A national accrediting system could conceivably work but without the outcomes that have made American higher education the envy of the world and without the successes that bring other nations to study accreditation and to emulate it. Accreditation is not just a paper process. On the one hand, the institutions and programs being accredited play a key role in determining the standards and policies under which they are recognized. At the same time, accreditation agency staff knows much more about schools and programs than appears on reports. There are personal relationships that add immeasurably to an agency's ability to assess a school and its function. These reasons call for smaller agencies rather than a single national body.
In addition, the multiplicity of accrediting bodies helps create intellectual ferment, diverse approaches, experimentation and the sharing of strategies and techniques and the cross fertilization of ideas that lead to improvement in accreditation. Conferences and papers sponsored by the Council on Higher Education Accreditation are often both stimulus and venue for this healthy interaction which in turn leads to responsible, carefully monitored, and targeted change.
Our thoughtful and reasoned response to the commission should point out that for over two decades, states, accreditors and scholars alike have sought valid indicators of institutional quality, without success. Similarly, those seeking measures of student learning have failed to identify strategies that accomplish this accurately and comprehensively. Suffice it to add that should such valid measures surface, accreditors and schools will enthusiastically adopt them. Note the emphasis on the word valid.
We might also explain that calls for transparency will result in a reluctance of schools to be open and straightforward to accreditors, and influence site visitors to write defensively. We would emphasize the importance of accreditation in establishing a threshold for quality, and in fostering a culture where institutions and programs seek to improve beyond that threshold.
And we would make it clear that in accreditation, improvement does not require structural change, and not all change is improvement.
Bernard Fryshman is executive vice president of the Association of Advanced Rabbinical and Talmudic Schools' Accreditation Commission.
The world of genuine education awoke to a rude surprise on July 29, 2006, for on the previous day Mr. Justice Eady of the British High Court ruled that the Daily Mirror newspaper had libeled a celebrity hypnotist by saying (in articles in 1997 and again in 2003) that his Ph.D. from LaSalle University of Louisiana was bogus. The hypnotist, one Paul McKenna, who performs on television and works with many famous clients, had no other degrees at the time. The judge said that the newspaper had not shown that its statements about LaSalle were “substantially true.”
This is nonsense. Seek in vain for LaSalle of Louisiana, unless you seek among the records of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, U.S. Postal Inspection Service, the courts of Louisiana or the records of the federal prison in Beaumont, Tex., where LaSalle’s owner, who used various names, served time for running the fraudulent college from which McKenna acquired his degree.
Having read the entire opinion, I can say that Eady deserves an award for having listened to such a peculiar case filled with half-truths, quarter-truths and untruths and actually written an exceptionally clear, thoughtful opinion about it. That his conclusions are fundamentally mistaken on the question of whether LaSalle degrees are degrees in the usual sense of the term has as much to do with the exceptional obscurity of American education law as it does about Mr. McKenna’s actions.
It also sets a very bad precedent for the international use of degrees.
Anyone interested in the actual history of LaSalle can read about it in Allen Ezell and John Bear’s book Degree Mills (Prometheus, 2005). LaSalle, its history, its brethren and its spawn are all detailed there. A similar account is available in the new, now ironically named publication “Guide to Bogus Institutions and Documents” (June, 2006) from the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admission Officers.
McKenna argued successfully that he did not know that LaSalle’s accreditation was baseless, and the judge agreed that it was unreasonable for him to have been expected to know. That is doubtful but not outrageous, considering that Mr. McKenna is an uneducated person who had to go outside the U.K. to acquire any degree. But the judge went on to say, as quoted by Michael Herman in the Times of London:
“…whatever one may think of the academic quality of his work, or of the degree granted by LaSalle, it would not be accurate to describe it as “bogus.”
These words appear mild and even judicial in temperament, but consider what they mean in reality. A judge in one country has declared that an entity in another country is a legitimate doctoral institution, contrary to the universally understood status of the degree supplier in its home country. The misunderstanding comes about because the judge does not realize that authority to issue degrees in the U.S. comes from states that may in fact have no meaningful standards for such programs. This was the case in Louisiana in the 1990s, as it is in Mississippi today. It can therefore be true, as the judge found, that LaSalle was issuing degrees legally under the laws of Louisiana, but also true, which the judge did not grasp, that the degrees issued did not represent academic learning.
The term “bogus” as tossed around in this case did not refer to the legality of the institution; it referred to the nature of its product relative to the standard expectations of a college degree.
The McKenna case therefore sets a strange precedent for who decides the international use of degrees.Until now, we could generally assume that each country got to decide what is and is not a meaningful college degree within its own boundaries. The fact that LaSalle was briefly allowed to operate as a religious exempt institution in Louisiana (a status acquired by building a church on its lawn) became irrelevant on the day that its owner was convicted of degree fraud, and of course its Ph.D.s were risible from the beginning.
All degrees are by definition academic credentials. Doctoral degrees issued by LaSalle are invalid academic credentials. LaSalle never issued what anyone in American education would accept as genuine degrees. The fact that a few U.S. employers mistakenly allowed such degrees to be used speaks of shoddy screening practices at employers who hired LaSalle degree holders, not of degree acceptability. The fact that McKenna claimed to have sent course work to the owner of LaSalle does not make its degrees genuine.
Eady’s opinion assumes that any entity claiming to be a college is capable of issuing genuine doctoral degrees, provided that it can produce the barest mist of a holographic image of pillars around itself. I readily concede that he has the right to do that within the norms of British law, provided that he is making that decision about a British degree grantor. In the McKenna case, he made that decision about a U.S. degree-grantor, which he should not have, and he got it wrong.
In paragraph 36 of the opinion, the judge wrote that whether a LaSalle degree is “scholarship worthy of academic recognition” is not the matter being litigated. The fact that the judge italicized the word “academic” only emphasizes the underlying problem: All Ph.D.s are academic, and must be so to be genuine. There is no such thing as a nonacademic Ph.D. In paragraph 60, Eady repeats this odd view when he mentions the distinction between the academic value of the Ph.D. and “its practical use.” It is not difficult to get some practical use out of a bogus Ph.D. -- for a while. If that were the standard upon which issuance of Ph.D.s were to be based, we’d all be calling each other Doctor.
It is less important that Eady got it wrong than that he made a determination about a foreign college contrary to how the home nation treats that college. I hope that other British judges do not make the same error, and that this case remains, not an anomaly, but an utterly freakish result, as it is widely viewed in the education community.
Finally, it is important to consider the difference between this case and the recent cases involving fake schools in Liberia. In the St. Regis case, which involved the issuance of documents that appeared genuine, approving that entity to issue Liberian degrees a U.S. court was presented evidence that the college’s approval in Liberia had been obtained through fradulent means and bribery, and that the approval was therefore invalid, as were the degrees issued by the entities. Any nation should have the right to decide that degrees issued by a so-called college in a foreign country are substandard or fake, and therefore unusable in the receiving nation, based on evidence supporting that view, because degrees cannot be imported like coal: Degrees are not commodities and do not contain the same ingredients. All nations need the right to protect their citizens from fakes.
No nation has the right to compel acceptance of degrees issued by a fake school in another country, simply because someone thought it was a real school. Mr. Justice Eady has done the academic community a favor by saying that the Mirror newspaper had not shown that LaSalle was sufficiently bogus. This should wake up the British ministry in charge of postsecondary education, which will, I hope, establish a meaningful screening system for grossly substandard degrees issued by fly-by-night suppliers in other countries.
Alan L. Contreras
Alan L. Contreras has been administrator of the Oregon Office of Degree Authorization, a unit of the Oregon Student Assistance Commission, since 1999. His views do not necessarily represent those of the commission.