Watchdogs to keep regional teeth

June 30, 1995

A new attempt is being made to reform quality control in United States colleges and universities following the near-revolution which greeted the first effort.

Such was the outcry at the initial attempt to revamp a 100-year-old system of accrediting institutions - which envisaged a national board in Washington overseeing standards around the country - that it had to be dropped.

The new effort is designed to soothe the sensitivities of institutions which have traditionally enjoyed almost complete autonomy and are suspicious of anything which happens in Washington.

The latest initiative involves a committee of college and university presidents drafting a plan to create a national organisation "to enhance coordination of higher education accrediting activities".

All mention of a national board has been dropped. The new proposal emphasises the regional structure of accreditation (there are six regional accrediting bodies). But it also endorses the move towards "common institutional eligibility criteria and threshold standards for accreditation".

John Vaughn, director of federal relations at the Association of American Universities, said he thought the new reform would probably look very like the old one. But, doing it this way, giving control of the process to university presidents, makes it more acceptable.

It became clear early this year that the original proposal for reforming quality control was running into problems when university presidents went public with their objections. John Silber, the outspoken president of Boston University, said the board, as originally envisaged "would heap disaster on American higher education". It would become "the latest weapon in the attempt to bring political correctness to the academy", he said.

Gerhard Caspar, Stanford's president, was concerned about his own local accrediting body's attempt to impose diversity standards - concerning the admission of ethnic minority students and the hiring of ethnic minority staff.

How much more difficult it would be to oppose national standards issued by a body in Washington, he thought. In the end, Caspar won the fight in California and that state's accrediting body dropped its diversity requirement for approval of institutions.

Plans to reform the system have been in the pipeline for almost two years. When the effort began, there was pressure to head off government interference in university affairs.

At that time many in Washington were irritated by the student loan default rate, the soaring cost of tuition and what they saw as bloat in academe.

Today the issues have changed. The Republicans are in power, and the pressure on higher education has eased.

Nevertheless, the new initiative is likely to come up with some system of common standards across regions, a minimum core which will apply in states as far apart as California and Maine. Such a core does not exist now.

However, there is no certainty it will be accepted. Charles Cook, who runs the New England accrediting body, said: "I would give it a better chance, but my concern is there is so much mistrust out there now."

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