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.