PHILADELPHIA WFB — PHILADELPHIA -- Attempting to calm the national furor over its efforts to promote racial and gender diversity on campus, a Philadelphia-based agency that accredits colleges and universities voted yesterday to soften its controversial diversity standards.
Officials of the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools, which accredits about 500 colleges in the Mid-Atlantic region, said they hoped the revised standards would mollify U.S. Education Secretary Lamar Alexander and other critics.
In a dispute that has gotten caught up in a larger debate about "political correctness" on college campuses, Mr. Alexander has threatened to withhold recognition of Middle States as an accrediting agency because it uses race and gender as criteria to evaluate schools.
Mr. Alexander contends that such criteria, which encourage colleges to include women and minorities on college faculties and governing boards, interfere with a school's academic and religious freedom. He also asserts that diversity standards have little to do with a school's ability to deliver a quality education.
Accreditation is pivotal because schools that aren't accredited cannot receive federal grants or accept students who receive federal financial aid. And without federal approval, Middle States cannot accredit.
At its annual meeting, Middle States upheld its position that diversity is part and parcel of a quality education. But it pledged not to use its diversity standards as "mandatory conditions" for accreditation.
The agency also adopted an explicit statement saying that it doesn't promote "numerical quotas or goals" to achieve diversity.
Although Middle States will continue to ask schools to diversify their boards of trustees, it will take into account a particular school's "institutional mission and sponsorship," a change aimed at providing more flexibility in evaluating religious schools.
The revisions were adopted with only three dissenting votes by more than 250 school officials.
Howard L. Simmons, Middle States' executive director, said after the vote that the modifications should "put to rest" objections raised by Mr. Alexander and several member schools.
"We should be able to settle this matter in very short order," Mr. Simmons said, indicating that negotiations were under way.
A spokeswoman for Mr. Alexander, reached in Washington, called the revision "a positive step" but refused to say whether it was sufficient to satisfy the secretary.
An advisory panel to Mr. Alexander is to vote on whether Middle States continues as an accrediting agency in February, but the secretary makes the final decision.
Middle States' officials insisted that they were not retreating from their diversity standards in response to political pressure from the Bush administration.