Education Secretary Lamar Alexander has delayed reauthorizing one of the nation's six major regional accrediting associations for colleges and universities until he can review the organization's new emphasis on cultural diversity as a criterion for evaluating the institutions.
Educators said they could not recall the federal government ever before challenging the standards applied by an accrediting organization in judging the academic fitness of educational institutions.
Mr. Alexander's decision involves the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools, which has responsibility for reviewing the academic credentials of most colleges and universities in Maryland, Delaware, the District of Columbia, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
In March 1990, the association deferred the reaccreditation of Bernard M. Baruch College, a branch of the City University of New York, saying it had not done enough to hire minority faculty members and administrators or to retain minority students. Baruch was reaccredited in June after it submitted a plan on how it would address the association's concerns.
Baruch was the first major college whose accreditation was challenged on such a basis. Mr. Alexander made it clear he had strong reservations about the association's action.
In a strongly worded letter to the Middle States Association dated April 11, the secretary expressed concern about the evaluation of colleges based on their affirmative-action hiring programs, the multicultural content of their curriculum or their other efforts to promote cultural diversity or racial harmony.
He said that including such factors among the criteria for accreditation might interfere with a college's traditional academic freedom and, in forcing the same standards on specialized schools, like religious institutions, might decrease real diversity among higher educational institutions.
He asked in the letter, "Should a regional accrediting agency dictate to institutions whether or how they should balance their students, faculty, administration and governing boards by race, ethnicity, gender or age?"
Students at colleges not accredited by one of the regional associations are prohibited from receiving federal aid money. The associations, whose members come from constituent institutions, are authorized for five-year periods by the Department of Education.
It was the second instance of Mr. Alexander's involvement in the area of minority policies in higher education since he was sworn in as education secretary last month. On March 20, he ordered an evaluation of a 3-month-old policy, devised by an undersecretary, prohibiting colleges from setting aside scholarship aid for minority students.