Accreditation and the Catholic Church

Had a fabulous time presenting virtually for Brian Lamb today at the UBC Town Hall today. In response to one of the questions that was asked at the end of the session, I had a thought – perhaps a rare occurrence. It was a memory, actually, of a blog post I wrote almost 10 years ago as a graduate student. The thought was basically this:

Educational reform is much like religious reform, and our openness movement and desires to innovate in higher education are much like the Reformation. When the Church was the prevailing power, it took Luther a significant amount of courage to stand up, nail a list of issues to the door, and say “Go ahead and excommunicate me. I’ve tried reforming from within with no success. You leave me no choice but to leave and try again on my own.”

In today’s higher education environment, accreditation bodies are very much like the Catholic Church of old. They exercise supreme power and authority of our institutions, and should our accrediting body choose to revoke our accreditation, our universities would go straight to the institutional equivalent of Hell.

This control over our schools is both ambient and ubiquitous – everywhere and unseen – much like the Church’s domination used to be. And as long as our institutions have to conform to the wishes of the accrediting bodies, no large-scale innovation or reformation can happen. (As an exercise, try to imagine an accredited institution of higher education that looks meaningfully different from any other.) We need an institution with the courage to nail its list of issues on the door of the accrediting bodies and say “Go ahead and excommunicate me (aka revoke my accreditation). I’ve tried reforming from within with no success. You leave me no choice but to leave and try again on my own.”

Of course there are a number of smaller start-up colleges that have a “who cares” attitude toward accrediting bodies, but these folks were anathema to begin with – so no message is really being sent. We need a “member of the Church” – an accredited institution – to stand up and reject the demands of the accreditors that prevent us from really innovating. Perhaps then we can start to clear out the kludge that is preventing higher education from trying new things and begin keeping up with our quick-paced business, government, and personal lives.

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  • David,
    your comment on accreditation and religion was my highlight at the UBC Townhall today. It puts the emphasis on the enormous scale of culture change we are invoking when we critically question an educational system (let alone, dismantle or at least make explicit its inherent bias).
    What will it take to stand up and revoke membership, became a heretic and suspend access to privilege, making ourselves vulnerable. Faith? Just kidding. Or rather a resolve to work from inside the system (immanent), subversive? Since we do not want to become missionaries (the master’s tool!), how do we engage into this process of political, cultural change?
    Are we back at connected and self-organizing communities as a vehicle for change? And can this change be really limited to the educational sector? The last time the “intellegentsia” lead a push for change (the student movement in the late 60s) all the believers (workers) turned against them. How can we keep from replicating a class based movement?

  • I’m curious. Given that accreditation bodies (including NCATE, which we just went though) are a large “pusher” of assessment (which happens to be my specialty). What would be the corollary to assessment in your analogy? Confessional?

    And is there a place for assessment in post-reformation education? I can make an argument either way, but I’m interested in your view.

  • RE Jeremy Browne,

    By assessment we measure whether someone actually learned, so it is an outward manifestation (behavior) of having received what is being taught. So in terms of the church, would assessment relate to the Gifts of the Spirit? If you receive the Spirit, there will be some manifestation of the spirit or behavior that shows it has been received.

    There are many scriptures referencing spiritual gifts. One of the most complete discussions of spiritual gifts that may apply in this case is 1 Corinthians 12, where Paul discusses the fact that although all who believe receive the Spirit, we are all still different. That is, everyone receives different gifts.

    I don’t know if this is stretching the analogy too far, but sticking with the reformation theme, you could use Paul’s discussion here as an argument for more individualized assessment, rather than the standardized assessment that policy makers seem to love so much. Some people are naturally stronger in some areas than others, but we are told to seek the best gifts – so continue to stretch and grow beyond what we are initially given. It is important, however, that each individual is assessed based on their own strengths and their original starting points.

    If we focus everything on standardized assessment, that is like choosing one or two gifts, and saying that if you want to join with our congregation, you have to have the gift of tongues, and in order to help everyone manifest the gift of tongues, we will whip everyone into a frenzy, with incoherent, adrenaline-laced babbling. As long as you can babble back something incoherent, you have passed. Sounds kind of like some of my undergraduate courses.

  • So I’m not asking you personally to risk excommunication, yet, but if you were to walk up to the door with hammer and list in hand, what would *your* 95 theses be? It seems to me that some of the reasons Luther’s act was so powerful was both the grossness of the church practices he was objecting too, how the obviousness of the corruption resonated with those not in power, and the relatively succinct way in which he described them. Indeed, for any of us contemplating reformation of these structures or at this scale, developing this list would seem an important step. I’m not saying it doesn’t exist or that you haven’t been outlining it for most of your career. I’m just asking what, specifically, for you (and, to anyone else listening, for them), it would contain.

  • 1 (of 95) Because college administration cannot improve without regular assessments:

    Administrators of community colleges ( or similar post secondary institutions) will to be required to be regularly (once per calendar year) assessed by the general population of the geographical area, the student population, and the faculty.

    2 (of 95)Limit power of President and small group of like minded administrators/staff from controlling public opinion:

    Access to media should not be restricted (thus controlled) by the administration of public institutions. College staff should have equal rights to be interviewed by media entities without fear of retribution.

    3(of 95) To discourage a lack of commitment indicated by constant changes in upper administration because of personal career choices (negatively impacts college staff moral:)

    If the college president or any vice president apply for positions at other institutions, within two consecutive years, they will be given notice that a new search for their present position will be initiated. They will be encourage to apply for this newly described position.

  • Sorry you guys, but at the risk of playing the “devils” advocate, I think you are focusing on the wrong things. Innovation rarely works in reverse. You cannot innovate a square peg and then try to shove it into a round hole. You must further innovate a square hole.
    You are all talking about reforming higher education. Why bother? Higher education, as it is, will die on it’s own if starved long enough of it’s food source (ie. tuition). I argue that rather that changing the old, energy should be put to legitimizing and marketing the new. I am a new doctoral student (USU) and have been away from formal education settings for 13 years. I just heard of open learning recently and was blown away that such a thing exists. My point? Does the average citizen know that they can take MIT courses for FREE????? Another point – I recently worked with an IT guy from USU to connect my computer to the VPN. He was very bright, talented, full-time, mid-management and get this – does not have a degree. I commented that he is an ORGANIC INTELLECTUAL – no fertilizers added.
    The powers that be in higher education have no desire to change the exisiting power structure – why should they? However, they will be forced to change when their budgets dwindle to nothing. I encourage those interested in promoting open learning to also promote the concepts of the “Self-directed Learner” (Adult Education Literature) as early as middle school and “portfolio resumes”. Portfolio resumes are based on what you can do and what you have done (in the “real” world) rather than the hoops jumped through to recieve a piece of paper. A final thought. Years ago I completed doctoral coursework in Adult Education in Canada. Canadian Universities are funded (approximately) 80% by government and 20% by tution. In the States it is roughly reversed. Because our Universities are consumer driven, we only need to change consumer patterns to change the institutions. This is good news! So I think the effort should be put on communicating, legitimizing, and improving open ed and the rest will take care of itself. Well, I hope nobodies blood is boiling, but I do hope this has stimulated thought.
    Susan Seymour