Accreditors in firing line as US political temperature rises

Agencies created to help institutions improve themselves, then asked to guard federal student aid, now face fight over battling partisan attacks on academia

March 10, 2023
The Gunfighter, Gregory Peck, Millard Mitchell, 1950 showing sheriff badge to illustrate 'Accreditors in firing line as US political temperature rises'
Source: 20th century fox/ Alamy

US higher education leaders in conservative-dominated states are starting to demand a more aggressive form of accreditation oversight, calling the federally derived authority a vital and somewhat untapped tool for protecting academic freedom.

The appeal for a new breed of activist accrediting agencies is a response to politicians in Florida and beyond overturning governing boards and ousting presidents at public institutions in a bid to deter classroom instruction and human rights protections in areas of racial and gender equity.

“It’s a national issue, and it’s changing the entire face of higher education,” said Belle Wheelan, president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, one of the six major regional accrediting agencies spread across the US.

Sacs’ geographical zone – the conservative-dominated south-eastern portion of the US – has left Dr Wheelan repeatedly confronting concerns over political interference in academia in several locations, across Florida, Georgia and Virginia. Sacs has helped institutions in those states fight back by quickly issuing public statements warning about specific actions at colleges and universities that it believes could lead to a loss of accreditation – a status that is vital for institutional credibility and for eligibility for federal student aid.

But other accreditors appear less willing to adjust their reactions as the political pressure increases. The regional accrediting body in the opposite corner of the country, the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, did just help block a second presidential ousting in the space of 18 months at North Idaho College by publicly warning that such firings by a conservative-dominated board of trustees could lead to NIC’s loss of accreditation.

A judge’s order led to the restoration, at least temporarily, of the North Idaho president, Nick Swayne, after the trustees did the same thing in 2021 to their president at the time, Rick MacLennan, in an apparent protest against Dr MacLennan’s support for a campus face mask mandate.

Yet the president of the Northwest Commission, Sonny Ramaswamy, made clear his unease about being thrust into that role, saying that the agency prefers to “ignore the external conversations and political divides and, instead, focus on our core efforts”.

Conservative activists are rushing to prevent the existing network of accrediting agencies from wielding federal authority against their campaigns. The Defense of Freedom Institute for Policy Studies – led by a top Trump administration education adviser, Robert Eitel – issued an analysis outlining several steps for changing the existing system of accreditation, including giving states and corporations a much greater role in deciding which institutions meet minimum acceptable performance levels for federal aid eligibility.

The interventions by accreditors such as Sacs and the Northwest Commission are evidence, said the report’s author, Michael Brickman – another Trump education adviser – that the accreditors are being “asked to do a lot of things that might be other people’s jobs”.

“Over time,” said Mr Brickman, now an adjunct fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, “I think that’s led to accreditors getting involved in all sorts of different things that really are not their core expertise.”

Congressional Republicans also have become involved, with nearly the entire delegation from North Carolina writing to Dr Wheelan to criticise her for warning the University of North Carolina about its creation of a new school designed to push conservative viewpoints.

Dr Wheelan said she wished the federal government would take action to make clearer the authority of accreditors to act in cases of imminent reputational damage to an institution. “It would certainly help, it would give us some support out there,” she told THE, “because I surely don’t feel I have any.”

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