By Anne Neal
The Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) is at it again. In the latest set of rulings to come from this regional accreditor's Commission for Community and Junior Colleges, fifteen institutions find themselves in various states of probation or warning or show cause. No school is shut down; the federal dollars keep flowing. And the public is kept mostly in the dark about the accreditor's actions. But what is clear is WASC's unrelenting interference in the governance of these state-supported institutions.
Under current law, Congress has linked accreditation and federal student aid to prevent students from squandering money on diploma mills. Recognized accreditors are authorized, by law, to serve as a "reliable authority" on the "quality of education or training offered." But the reliance is misplaced. As it turns out, the interests of the accreditors and the federal government are not the same.
At Ohlone College, for example, academic quality is praised. Education is apparently fine. But no matter. The school is placed on warning because the accreditor doesnt like the way the board is functioning and planning.
At San Joaquin Delta College, educational quality is not mentioned. But the school is placed on warning because of problems with the board of trustees. The board is surely not blameless, but WASC is bent on discouraging appropriate oversight, telling trustees---in the president's words---to "stop micromanaging" when apparently the administration's failure to control cost overruns is forcing the board to cut $60 million in planned improvements.
Lassen College? Governance again. The federal accreditors---who are, remember, faculty and administrators---think they know better than the board of trustees.
Mira Costa College? Board issues yet again---this time, the accreditor finds problems with the "participative governance climate."
Victor Valley College apparently suffers from the same disease. The school has been on "warning" status since 2005---in part because the accreditor is demanding that it establish a "positive campus climate that embodies a culture of respect, civility, dialogue, and trust designed to improve institutional decision-making, planning, and effectiveness."
Recently, WASC found that the University of California Regents were wanting as well. A special review team---dominated by sitting college presidents---concluded that the Regents had fostered a "culture of interaction" that results in "unnecessarily harsh ... treatment of UC administrators, faculty, and staff." Far from promoting the public interest, accreditors forced the Regents and chancellors to devote precious time, not to mention taxpayer dollars, to respond to their meddling and inaccuracies. Not long after, WASC also cited St. Mary's, a small Catholic college in California's Bay Area, for several issues including what the accreditor deemed a "sustained lack of civility." Crucially, WASC did not cite any evidence to support this claim.
It's bad enough that accreditors often ignore what they are asked to review, namely educational quality. But it's even worse that they frequently push their own agenda---an agenda that interferes with governance and treads mighty close to regulating the exchange of ideas on campus. The situation with WASC and California schools is a case in point.
Here, it appears the accreditor is picking sides in internal disputes. Under the guise of quality assurance, WASC is demanding that trustees defer to faculty and administrators---the very groups that the review teams represent.
Of course, it might be tolerable if the trustees could tell the accreditors to go away. But under the current regulatory regime, California boards have essentially no choice---regional accreditors such as WASC have carved up the country into little cartels. WASC is the regional gatekeeper for federal funds. If it doesn't accredit UC or the California community colleges, the institutions can't receive federal student-aid dollars. Causing a school to lose federal funding is tantamount to shutting it down.
So the accreditors wield immense power over these institutions---and they are thus able to manipulate what happens on campus in subtle ways. "The interests of the faculty and administrators have become primary to the accreditors and are in direct conflict with engaged, reform-minded trustees," outgoing Hawaii regent Jane Tatibouet---whose university is also subject to WASC accreditation---explained at a recent forum in Washington, D.C. "The accreditors, in my view, are subtly 'blackmailing' the academic institution into obedience or sanctions will be imposed. The threat of a sanction or actual probation is the first tool used to keep a Board under the accreditor's thumb, ultimately preventing the Board from performing its role both as steward and visionary while addressing accountability, financial and cost controls, and academic excellence."
Rather than allowing accreditors and internal campus constituencies to bully boards and undermine their fiduciary work, trustees urgently need to exercise their rightful role. At the same time, policymakers need to hear from trustees calling for an end to a federal system that undermines the very institutional independence that has made American higher education so great.
To find out more about what's wrong with the current accreditation system, see ACTA's 2007 policy paper, "Why Accreditation Doesn't Work and What Policymakers Can Do About It".
Anne Neal is President of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni