Presidents divided by quality bid

March 24, 1995

An effort to reform quality control in United States colleges and universities is running into such stiff opposition that it may be ditched if a consensus cannot be reached.

Some university presidents object strongly to the creation of a national board to oversee a new set of national standards in US higher education. They argue that it is not needed and that the strength of the system is its variety. A national body would simply be co-opted by bureaucrats in Washington in their relentless drive for uniformity, they argue.

The board proposed by higher education leaders "would heap disaster on American higher education", said John Silber, president of Boston University. It would become "the latest weapon in the attempt to bring political correctness to the academy".

Reform of accreditation, the 100-year-old system for monitoring the quality of higher education, has been in the pipeline for 18 months. Prodded by the department of education and the Clinton administration, the eight regional accrediting bodies and seven national higher education associations had come up with a proposal for improving the system.

Convinced that they had to head off federal government interference in university affairs, they proposed new standards for judging higher education institutions, concentrating on what students had learned at college. The standards would be implemented by a national body.

Drastic revisions have already been made to the original concept. Instead of having the board dominated by members of the public in the interests of improving public confidence, the proposal is that it is controlled by higher education, including at least 12 presidents.

The national standards will no longer be called "common standards" but "threshold standards", suggesting that they will be minimum standards on which the regional accrediting agencies may build to reflect local needs.

The reform effort dates back to 1993 when Congress and the department of education began to ask what the regional accrediting agencies were doing to crack down on colleges which had educated students who went on to default on their loans.

But under reforms introduced by President Clinton, the student loan default rate is no longer a hot political issue while the debate about value for money has gone off the boil.

With the Republicans dominating Congress, university presidents argue there is no longer a need to head off federal government action. "It makes a significant difference having the Republicans in control," said Robert Sasseen, president of the University of Dallas. "Democrats love to regulate and Republicans love anti-trust."

Stanford president Gerhard Caspar said: "The idea that any body would presume such authority for itself is deeply troubling."

This was mild compared to Dr Silber, who wrote to 1,800 other presidents. The board "would preserve a fiction of regional accreditation at the cost of putting all colleges and universities under the de facto regulation of the unelected leaders of a single, unaccountable, and extremely powerful quasi-governmental agency", he said. "I hope you will join me in raising the alarm."

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