High noon for the nation's colleges and universities

Robert H. Chambers

November 26, 1991|By Robert H. Chambers

WHEN Gary Cooper met "High Noon's" villains in the classic showdown on a dusty main street in the Old West, there was little doubt who would win out.

Old "Coop" gunned down the bad guys, tossed his marshal's star in the dust as a sign of contempt at the cowardice of the lily-livered townsfolk who failed to stand up with him against the evil forces, and left on his honeymoon with Grace Kelly. In "High Noon" the good guy won, and his reward was to ride into the sunset with his best girl.

This classic shoot-out is now in the process of being re-enacted, but not in the dust of a godforsaken cow town. In the present re-enactment, the self-styled good guy is Lamar Alexander, President Bush's recently selected secretary of education, and the bad guys are, in the new secretary's view, members of the Commission on Higher Education of the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools. The shoot-out is taking place in Washington, the capital of the Free World, and the stakes are very high.

At issue is the right of a self-governing accrediting body to set its own standards in its efforts to enhance the quality of higher education in the United States. The coin of the realm for colleges and universities is the stamp of approval known as accreditation. Without it, a college or university might as well close up shop, for who wants a degree from an institution that is not appropriately accredited?

Consequently, for decades the nation's 3,400 colleges and universities have been regulating their own quality through a system of six accrediting agencies staffed by a handful of paid professionals and governed by volunteers from the schools themselves, as well as from the public sector. It is an excellent system, unique in all the world, envied by educators around the world.

The Middle States Association, which is responsible for 509 schools from the District of Columbia to New York, has often been a pacesetter among the accrediting bodies. It is, after all, responsible for and responsive to many of the finest educational institutions in the country, including four of the eight Ivy League schools, three service academies and a host of renowned private liberal arts colleges and public universities.

So what's going on here? Why is Lamar Alexander so critical of a system that has clearly been working very well since the 19th century? The issue, the secretary says, is the so-called "diversity standard" Middle States brings to bear on its accreditation decisions. For years, the association has insisted that schools in the region live up to the standards they have set for themselves. Almost all of those statements note diversity among students, faculty and administrators as important to the schools' missions, and Middle States has been holding them accountable. If a college claims that diversity is important to its mission, then the association properly tests the validity of such a claim.

According to Alexander, however, Middle States has recently gone too far. Citing two evaluation reviews -- those of Baruch College of the City University of New York and Westminster Theological Seminary near Philadelphia -- the secretary hints darkly that Middle States has made diversity its sole gauge of academic quality, that the professors and administrators who volunteer for evaluation duty have "set their own agendas" and that "political correctness" has reared its ugly head in the accreditation arena.

Aha! Now we understand a bit more of Alexander's agenda. The secretary links the Middle States diversity standard to the dreaded word "quotas" and slaps the association on its collective wrist for kowtowing to outdated standards of the political left. He casts Middle States in the role of a Willie Horton . . . more refined, of course, but, nevertheless, an easy target to set up.

How can the secretary of education even consider expunging a volunteer body of educators that wants only to enhance the quality of its own schools? Simple enough. Since federal financial aid funds are linked to accreditation, Middle States itself must be accredited by none other than the U.S. Department of Education and its boss -- Alexander.

In a letter to Prof. Martin Trow, chairman of the committee that will review the case against Middle States and recommend to him, Alexander indicates that he has already made up his mind. He says Middle States "appears to be making its own definition of diversity a condition for accreditation." Moreover, "this may be symptomatic of a trend by accrediting associations to impose their own views of social policy on schools that clearly provide a quality education."

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