A tiny "Great Books" college in California, tucked away in a mountain meadow, would seem an unlikely minuteman in a struggle for the academic liberty of America's colleges, universities, and professional schools. But so it is. Thomas Aquinas College, named for the 13th-century Italian saint and patron of Catholic education, was among the first to resist the imposition of non-academic standards by regional accrediting agencies. Now the accreditors, who grant a scholastic seal of approval--and with it, access to federal assistance--are hoping to consolidate and centralize their power over dissident institutions.
Armed with an agenda that includes politically correct notions of "diversity," an alliance of accreditors and Washington-based educrats is trying to establish a national accrediting body that would oversee every institution of higher learning in the country. No school that receives federal money would be immune from attack: By threatening to withhold accreditation, and thereby close off millions of dollars in government loans and other assistance, a centralized body could impose a political agenda at will.
This is precisely the lesson in the recent flap over the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education, which insisted that medical schools require training in abortion procedures or else forfeit accreditation.
If the move toward a centralized accrediting body succeeds, the private, collegial character of the review process will be in peril. Advocates of diversity and multicultural standards instead will be pitted against institutions striving to preserve high academic standards along with their own distinctive missions. The autonomy and quality of these institutions will be put in jeopardy.
This is not a hypothetical fear. The Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education, a nationwide agency, recently voted for ideological reasons to deny accreditation to any obstetrics and gynecology program that fails to provide mandatory training in abortion procedures. A similar imposition of ideological mandates could occur if accreditation of colleges were centralized in one monopolistic organization.
Accreditation has long been a valuable process in higher education. Until recently, it has involved private, professional peer review to make sure that colleges and universities actually provide the quality of education they claim to provide. Now proponents of "diversity" are using the process to impose politically correct educational standards on institutions striving to preserve their distinctive missions. In the name of advancing diversity within each institution, they are imposing their own version of conformity and threatening true diversity among institutions. At stake is America's historical commitment to the integrity, quality, and independence of its colleges.
The Aquinas Model
Since its founding in 1971, Thomas Aquinas has offered only one kind of degree: a bachelor of arts in liberal education. Our curriculum is composed of the seminal books of Western civilization, and we are unabashedly Catholic. There are no majors, minors, or electives. There are no textbooks; we rely only on the original works of those who have thought deeply about man, nature, and God. There are no lectures; we hold seminars in which professors guide students toward an understanding of the authors before them. With its clear and distinctive academic vision, the college offers an exemplary version of a classical liberal education.
We pursue no "affirmative action" for persons or texts. We look for the best teachers, the best books, and students willing and able to undertake the life of reason. As Catholics, we hold that one intellectual tradition is superior, and we ask our students to study in that tradition, as well as to read prominent critics of that tradition such as Marx and Nietzsche. We are not about the study of "culture," as the word is used today; we will not base our curriculum on authors consciously selected for their race, gender, or sexual orientation. Whether the author is St. Thomas or Machiavelli, however, we are studying not the man, but what he has to say about the true, the beautiful, and the good.
Until the 1980s, schools such as Thomas Aquinas thrived under the nation's six regional accrediting agencies for senior colleges and universities. These accreditors respected their members' independence and judged them in light of their professed missions. Countries like France, with their centralized ministries of education, would not allow such an enterprise as this. America does, thanks to its tradition of non- governmental accreditation.
The latest mutation in the accreditation process is a story that we at Thomas Aquinas College know only too well. Every college and university in the United States must periodically submit to a review by one of these private accrediting agencies. Without accreditation, schools lose academic credibility among their peers.
The process in the United States has always been largely in the hands of private organizations of accredited schools. After World War II, however, the G.I. Bill and the growth of federal aid programs prompted the agencies to take on the additional role of approving colleges as the recipients of such funds. And as the gatekeepers of federal funds, the agencies in turn had to be approved by the U.S. Department of Education.
As schools became more dependent upon federal funds, the character of the accrediting agencies gradually changed. Control over funds gave them great leverage over colleges and universities. They became less collegial associations of institutions that testify publicly to the worthiness of a college, and more the rulers and regulators of these institutions. Now they are threatening to become the guardians of an ideological agenda and to advocate diversity standards and politically-correct curricula.
Diversity over Quality
By 1988, with the rise of multiculturalism in academia, the threat was emerging in California. Our accreditor, the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC), began promoting more prescriptive standards. These included the following language: "The institution demonstrates its commitment to the increasingly significant role played by diversity of ethnic, social, and economic backgrounds among its members by making positive efforts to foster such diversity."
Stephen Weiner, the executive director of WASC, wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education that WASC's expectations for diversity "affect virtually every aspect of campus life, and, therefore, each of our accrediting standards." In one document, the new diversity policy is called "the cornerstone of a major new thrust." In other words, standards of integrity and academic quality no longer would form the sole basis for accreditation.
The new policy was part of a national movement among accreditors to leverage their influence over federal funds on behalf of the cause of diversity. Specifically, the accreditors wanted to mandate race and gender preferences in hiring and admissions, as well as multiculturalism in the curriculum, on the grounds that they are intrinsic to academic quality.
Colleges and universities began to worry about accreditation's new thrust. This concern was not without foundation. One school discovered that WASC evaluators were soliciting racial grievances from the faculty of a neighboring college. Another was told, in writing, that it had "failed to grasp the concept of diversity" and that its curricula would have to be "restructured." A third was ordered to alter the composition of its board of trustees and told that a religious profession required of its faculty was "not in conformity with [WASC's] expectations."
Colleges where multiculturalism, feminist studies, and the like had been matters of internal dispute, to be resolved internally, became vulnerable to meddling by outsiders with a political agenda. Moreover, the traditional purposes of accreditation--frank, collegial criticism and public avowal of academic integrity--were undermined by the mistrust generated by this new agenda.
The threat to our college was plain. If WASC meant what it was saying, it could not, in principle, accredit our college. In the eyes of the accreditors, Thomas Aquinas College is multiculturally incorrect.
In a lengthy struggle, Thomas Aquinas College confronted WASC's usurpations. We rejected the diversity standards when we came up for reaccreditation in 1992. The accrediting team of scholars sent to visit the college came away impressed with our high academic standards; in response, WASC reaffirmed our accreditation for eight years. When WASC circulated to its members a policy statement purporting to clarify its brief and vague standards on diversity, Thomas Aquinas College took the lead in raising objections and mobilizing opposition. Other institutions, including the California Institute of Technology, the University of Southern California, and Stanford, joined us in expressing alarm at the WASC statement. Although WASC formally adopted that controversial statement, it now requires colleges only to "thoughtfully engage" the issue of diversity.
The Empire Strikes Back
Unfortunately, the story does not end there. Education lobbyists and bureaucrats, led by Robert H. Atwell of the American Council on Education, are launching a counteroffensive. Atwell co-chairs an ad hoc group called the National Policy Board on Higher Education Institutional Accreditation (NPB), which advocates a national accreditation organization to police the regional groups and any possible competitors. It is being packaged as a way to resist federal regulatory overreach into academia. Don't believe it.
NPB is proposing an organization with unprecedented accrediting clout. It would set national standards for all institutional accreditors--in effect, all the agencies that the Department of Education uses to determine eligibility for federal money. The organization would be both "more specific" in its standards and "more rigorous" in its processes. It would establish its own budget, levy dues to be collected by the regional accrediting agencies, and wield the authority to impose sanctions against accrediting agencies that fail to enforce its standards. This would be the closest thing the nation has ever had to a national ministry of education.
How would Thomas Aquinas, or any college with a distinct mission, fare under such a scheme? What would happen to the quality of American higher education?
The answers are clear from the proposed organization's core standards, which include diversity. There is good reason to believe that this new board would promote diversity standards nationwide. In fact, the very existence of schools grounded in a clearly defined academic philosophy would be at great risk. Atwell has written that "diversity among institutions does not satisfy the need for diversity within institutions." In other words, colleges and universities whose curricula are specifically dedicated to the "great books," a traditional liberal-arts curriculum, a theological focus, or any other coherent body of belief would be subject to the multicultural whims of a remote bureaucracy.
Such diversity also could be applied to the internal, everyday workings of all institutions that rely upon accreditation: student and faculty composition, trustee membership, allocation of resources, and on and on. Atwell has advocated a "comprehensive approach that encompasses the makeup of the faculty, student body, and staff; the curriculum offered by the institution; and the climate on the campus itself." Such a vision invites not diversity, but rather a leveling of the very differences in academic emphasis and philosophy that have helped create the finest educational non- system in the world.
Opposition to the new accrediting entity is growing. Among others, American University, Boston University, Baylor, Caltech, Holy Cross, John Hopkins, Pepperdine, Rice, Stanford, Smith, the University of Dallas, the University of Southern California, the University of Missouri, and the University of Vermont all oppose the plan. Congressmen William Goodling (R-PA), chairman of the House Economic and Educational Opportunities Committee, and Howard McKeon (R-CA), chairman of its higher education subcommittee, have written to Education Secretary Richard Riley: "We would certainly oppose any attempt to use accreditation--to impose standards unrelated to the fiscal interests of American taxpayers which could force schools to change their nature or their mission."
It is not enough, however, to defeat the nationalization plan or fight WASC to a stalemate. A genuinely open and collegial system of accreditation, one that allows governments to catch fraud and abuse and yet steers clear of political correctness, is clearly needed. Like most college presidents, I would prefer to devote my energies to the growth and prosperity of my college, to its unique curriculum, and to its ardent, inquiring students.
My experience with accreditation leads me to suggest a policy of decentralization and reform to protect the diversity of ideas, programs, and institutions that has served our republic so well over centuries.
An Outline for Reform
First, it is essential to restrain the federal government's impulse to govern higher education. The federal government may want to promote college and university education, for example through subsidies for student loans. But federal aid should permit individual students and their families maximum choice, and leave schools free of burdensome and possibly ideological regulations.
Liberal education, with its historical roots in religion and philosophy, deals in those ultimate questions that the American political tradition leaves to associations other than the government. That is why, when the G.I. Bill provided federal dollars, the gatekeeping function was assigned to non-governmental accrediting agencies.
Second, non-governmental accreditation in its present form--regional monopolies like WASC--should confine itself to screening out incompetence and fraud. An accrediting agency is not, and cannot be, purely private, since it can shut off federal money. Recognizing this power, it must show proper restraint. In the short run, such a modest role, in which any criticism is non-binding, is less open to abuse than any form of regulation, particularly regulation by state governments, which sometimes serve as strongholds of the diversity forces.
The most lasting way to forestall abuse is to break the monopoly. Federal policy should therefore favor the formation of high-quality, alternative accreditation agencies, perhaps tailored to institutional types: research universities, liberal-arts colleges, or, to address the latest outbreak of academic intimidation, pro-life medical schools. Such agencies, being genuinely voluntary, can better accommodate their members than one- size-fits-all monopolies whose standards must measure institutions as diverse as institutes of psychology, comprehensive universities, liberal-arts colleges, and research universities. Colleges would have an incentive to earn recognition from truly independent, private accreditors, since their approval would mean something. The resulting competition and emulation would promote quality much more effectively than the present system.
Third, a limited intervention against rogue accreditors who misuse their delegated powers can be useful, at least until the monopolies are effectively broken. One instance of prudent intervention occurred when Lamar Alexander, then U.S. Secretary of Education, restrained the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools when it tried to bully Baruch College and Westminster Theological Seminary into accepting diversity standards. But it is better to fashion one's own freedom, as we have tried to do within WASC, or as would result from the emergence of alternative accreditors.
Centralization of regional accreditors is exactly the wrong way to go. It was an enormous labor for us to alert some of the 145 schools in WASC to the threats posed by regional bureaucracy. I seriously doubt that a stronger bureaucratic organization based in Washington, D.C., with a membership in the thousands, could ever be moved with a similar effort.
I understand the desire for accountability when federal funds are involved, and I understand the natural ambition on the part of the new Congress to reform from the top down, but I think it should be resisted. We should remember what happened to the national history standards in Goals 2000. First proposed by Lynne Cheney, the head of the National Endowment of the Humanities under President Bush, they were hijacked by the educators commissioned to execute the project. At the same time, we should move to prevent the centralization of the accrediting process.
The existing national educational bodies that offer to implement reforms tend to support fads like the diversity movement, and will try to regiment independent schools. Such centralization brought us mandatory training in abortion procedures among accredited medical schools.
We must not set up a shadow national ministry of education under the guise of privatization, efficiency, or better standards.
Its bureaucrats will be no better than government bureaucrats, and even less accountable. Above all, colleges and universities will merit the trust of the public and the government if they hold true to the timeless standards enunciated by St. Thomas Aquinas seven centuries ago: "The study of philosophy is not directed to the various opinions of men, but to the truth of things." Truth, not diversity, is the goal of education.