Monday, July 7, 2014
In the current Chronicle, U Penn English prof Peter Conn offers a remarkably misguided essay on accreditation. An excerpt:
I want to raise [an] . . . important objection to accreditation as codified and practiced now. By awarding accreditation to religious colleges, the process confers legitimacy on institutions that systematically undermine the most fundamental purposes of higher education.
Skeptical and unfettered inquiry is the hallmark of American teaching and research. However, such inquiry cannot flourish—in many cases, cannot even survive—inside institutions that erect religious tests for truth. The contradiction is obvious.
Citing Wheaton College as an example, Conn notes that its faculty are required to affirm faith statements, and thus Wheaton "makes a mockery of whatever academic and intellectual standards the process of accreditation is supposed to uphold."
Where to begin? Three quick points:
First, as Conn acknowledges, there is a (largely sensible) move to shift accreditation standards from being focused primarily on inputs to being focused more on outputs. Categorically excluding certain institutions because of the commitments they bring to the education process takes higher ed in exactly the wrong direction. The success of Wheaton grads (and grads of many other institutions that require statements of faith) speaks for itself.
Second, as most folks seem to have recognized at least ten years ago, there is a value to institutional pluralism -- even if all we care about is the role of faculty research in the pursuit of truth. To take one of countless examples, would Mark Noll have flourished as a historian at the University of Illinois to the same extent that he flourished at Wheaton (and continues to flourish at Notre Dame)?
Third, many Christian colleges make their commitments explicit; many secular colleges do not. Does weeding out the institutions that are explicit ensure that secular colleges cultivate environments in which totally "unfettered inquiry" can and will proceed? If we throw out a certain category of institutional commitments, have we effectively closed off certain paths of inquiry?
Should religious colleges be automatically entitled to accreditation? Of course not. Neither should secular colleges. The focus for both should be on the fruits of their labors, not on the reasons they labor in the first place.