Biden pushes university accreditors on response to complaints

Administration demands open process that allows anonymity, upsetting agencies seeking clearer rules in an era of partisan attacks

October 2, 2023
Source: iStock

The Biden administration is making clear that accrediting agencies should accept and act upon all complaints against US colleges and universities, even if anonymous, upsetting accreditors who argue that such a system needs to be accompanied by robust protections.

The government’s expectation was set forth in a letter to accreditors from the US Department of Education demanding that procedures for institutions to accept complaints against them be “timely, fair, and equitable”. That includes allowing for a variety of means of submission, such as phone or email, along with protections that allow for the confidentiality of the complainant, the department says.

The overall goal of the order isn’t objectionable, said the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (Chea), the chief US lobby group for accrediting agencies. But its implementation – without negotiated definitions and procedures – is broadly threatening to US higher education, said Jan Friis, Chea’s senior vice-president for government affairs.

“I agree that we should consider all facts,” Mr Friis said. “But put it in regulation, do it correctly.”

Accrediting agencies play a key but often behind-the-scenes role in US higher education. The federal government formally recognises a network of accreditors, and colleges and universities need the ongoing approval of at least one of them for their students to be eligible for benefits that include federal student aid programmes.

The Department of Education’s issuance of the guidance letter last month, and Chea’s alarmed response to it, reflects an atmosphere of sharpening partisan conflict across the US as conservative critics of higher education look for tools to constrain academia. Accreditation has emerged as one of those battlegrounds, especially as some accreditors have begun using their gatekeeping authority to push back against that partisan constraint, by confronting state political leaders seeking limits on curricula, hiring and faculty free speech.

The administration’s action stems most directly from concerns with one particular accrediting agency, run by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which has a policy of requiring that complaints – typically from students – be submitted in writing, and physically mailed to Sacs, with the sender citing an applicable provision in accreditation law. Sacs was faulted for that policy last year during its most recent five-year renewal by federal officials responsible for formally recognising accrediting agencies.

The president of Sacs, Belle Wheelan, said her agency gets about 500 complaints a year and has long had that policy as a means of avoiding frivolous submissions. “With so many institutions” to accredit, she said, “you can imagine people call to complain about everything – the water in my room is not hot enough, somebody blinked at me wrong.”

In response to the concern, however, Sacs is now in the process of revising its policy for accepting complaints, with an eye toward making them easier to file, including an electronic option, she said.

Mr Friis acknowledged that the Department of Education is justified in wanting to ensure the proper handling of complaints against institutions. But the department is acting in the absence of formal structures, after the Trump administration voided many existing federal procedural rules. The Biden administration was expected to create new rules through the long and formal governmental process known as negotiated rulemaking, but the administration then set aside that effort, so that it could instead write rules governing student financial aid, after the Supreme Court forbade Joe Biden’s major student debt forgiveness plan in June.

With the new department letter, but without any accompanying formal structures, Mr Friis said, accrediting agencies have no clear idea on the details of how they and their institutions must handle outside complaints they receive. Chea officials were especially upset to hear, soon after the Department of Education’s guidance letter last month, that at least one accrediting agency was immediately told by administration officials that it had acted in violation of the guidance.

“That's astounding,” Mr Friis said. “There wasn’t a chance to come into compliance.”

Dr Wheelan declined to criticise Biden administration officials for implementing the new guidelines without a negotiated process, but agreed “they would have had more input from all of us, had they done that”.

A spokesman for the Department of Education, in response to questions, didn’t address Chea’s concern about the need for federal officials to create a more formal set of guidelines for how institutions and accreditors should handle complaints they receive. But the spokesman said unacceptable practices that need to be ended include institutional policies that require physical letters of complaint to be sent through the traditional postal system.

“The guidance is intended to clarify the factors the department will evaluate to ensure complaints are heard, regardless of the source or manner in which it was submitted,” the spokesman said. “Complaints – whether from the public, faculty, or students – may be an important indication of quality issues at an institution, and it is critical that accrediting agencies evaluate and respond to complaints.”

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