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Volume 1, Number 3, October 19, 2005
“The Best in the World”? (Part 2)
The last issue of Inside Accreditation discussed The Economist magazine article (“Secrets of Success,” September 10, 2005) and its contention that U.S. higher education was “the best in the world.” The Economist attributed this stature to the absence, in the United States, of a “system” of higher education organized under the authority of government. Inside Accreditation acknowledged that U.S. higher education may not be a system, but went on to point out that, nonetheless, it is an identifiable and definitive enterprise. This led to the question: “What holds U.S. higher education together?”

The answer offered by Inside Accreditation is that what holds us together, at least in part, is our longstanding commitment to self-regulation through accreditation. Accreditation holds us together through the participation of thousands of colleges and universities in a similar accreditation review process. Even more important, accreditation holds us together through the core values on which it is built and which it reflects: the centrality of institutional mission, the autonomy of our institutions and the academic freedom of our faculty.

If accreditation takes some of the credit for the quality of U.S. higher education as described by The Economist, it must also accept responsibility when there are problems associated with what we do. This is particularly important in the current accountability climate of persistent probing of higher education, along with many other social institutions. This Inside Accreditation focuses on how higher education might respond to the criticisms that our problems engender, especially when these criticisms focus on essential elements of our “non system.”

The Economist’s criticism of the centrality of mission focuses on areas where it perceives that colleges and universities have moved away from key commitments. The article says that commitment to access, for example, is compromised by colleges and universities becoming “bastions of privilege” just as the commitment to teaching may be compromised by greater attention to research.

Other recent criticisms of the centrality of mission are more frequently based on the contention that mission gets in the way of providing important information that students and the public need about the quality of higher education, especially standardized indicators used to make comparisons among colleges and universities related to, e.g., graduation rates, transfer rates and job placement. Focus on mission avoids comparability and inhibits the creation of a “national” picture of higher education performance, just at a time when students and the public, more than ever, need such information to make decisions about college attendance and college costs.

In contrast to these criticisms, many in higher education see mission as essential to organizing the energy and work of our institutions. As long as an institution provides information about its performance and effectiveness in relation to its mission, students and the public are, arguably, well informed. Needed information about quality can be obtained through a mission-based approach without resorting to standardization or nationalization of quality indicators. The organizing power of mission need not be sacrificed to a standardization that will reduce the vitality of our institutions and shortchange students and the public. And, going back to The Economist, the public can use information based on mission to test whether institutions are honoring key commitments, such as access and focus on teaching.

Criticisms of institutional autonomy are based on the view that autonomy is tantamount to indifference to the needs of students and the public. The Economist article speaks to criticisms of neglect of undergraduate education and core curricula, as well as professors who “...stick with their pet subjects, regardless of what undergraduates need to learn.” Autonomy is sometimes viewed as an assertion that institutions are more inwardly focused rather than appropriately attentive to external constituents. Some go so far as to say that, in today’s world, there is no such thing as autonomy – for institutions or anything else in our society.

In contrast to these criticisms, many in higher education view institutional autonomy as the privilege to be responsible and responsive to our various constituents about key academic decisions. “Autonomy” focuses on determinations about academic matters such as curricula and standards. Indeed, if the higher education enterprise cannot exercise its unique responsibility for independent judgment and leadership when it comes to academic issues, how can colleges and universities meet the needs of students and the public?

Criticisms of academic freedom tend to view this tradition as contributing to an insularity and lack of responsiveness of faculty to the social and economic needs of society. The Economist article echoes this, pointing to allegations of “political correctness” and institutions not as devoted to free inquiry as they might be, as well as to “unengaged professors and overburdened teaching assistants.” Some see academic freedom as a way of justifying faculty who are seen as pursuing their individual goals at the expense of students and societal interests. These criticisms conjure up an erroneous image of an overpaid, under worked faculty member with an inappropriate sense of entitlement.

In contrast to these criticisms, many in higher education view academic freedom as essential to faculty having the space and time to make significant intellectual contributions to the society. The hallmark of the success of academic freedom is that, over and over, responsible faculty members with energy, intellectual integrity and creativity have made extraordinary intellectual contributions not only to our country, but to the world.

In general, the challenge of criticisms to our core values in the current climate can readily be met by making the case that our commitment to mission, institutional autonomy and academic freedom contribute to – rather than detract from – higher education accountability. There are many examples of how these values are part of being responsive to the needs of students and the public. However obvious to us, we must continue to make the case for the benefits of these values to the future growth and development of higher education enterprise itself. Indeed, we can return to The Economist account and assert that a thoughtful application of our core values does address the areas of concern that the article raises, even while praising us as “the best in the world.”

Inside Accreditation is a publication intended to keep presidents of CHEA member institutions informed about developments in external quality review of higher education. Please direct any inquiries or comments to or to (202) 955-6126.

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