Blog Post

How to Revolutionize Your University? Maybe Start By Losing Your Accreditation

Today brought the remarkable news that the famous, prestigious Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern has chosen not to seek re-accreditation.  As often happens, I blogged about it, tweeted my blog url, and a number of smart people on Twitter came back with some responses.  This is how I learn more--and in fact it is the method of putting ideas out there, getting new information from others, rethinking, and revising that I advocate in the classroom too.   In this case, at the end of my original piece, I will add my new caution about rebelling against accreditation.  As in most things in higher education (or K-12), removing one impediment to innovation can sometimes leave the doors wide open to large-scale exploitation. 

We need to always be aware that there are often problems lurking behind any movement to "reform."  (Our HASTAC/Futures Initiative series, "The University Worth Fighting For," is based on exactly this balancing of innovation with caution since, in the present anti-education climate, "innovation" can become a synonym for exploitation by those who don't care at all about education, just profits.)


Now, back to the original post about the Medill School's recent (they've done it before) declining to be part of the Journalism School accreditation/ranking process by ACEJMC:

As reported in the Chicago Tribune, "the dean of the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications said Monday that school officials chose not to pursue renewed accreditation, which provides outside approval of academic programs, because the process is 'flawed' and not useful." ...Our goal is always to be the best in the world, and this process doesn't get us there," Hamm said in an interview Monday afternoon. "We just don't find that the review provides us with anything beyond what we already know today. It's relatively superficial, extremely time-consuming and doesn't lead us to a goal of significant improvement. It's sort of a low bar."

Here's the article:

Why is accreditation so bad for innovation?  Because it was designed that way.  Not intentionally, of course.  But, as I explain in my chapter on "The Measure of a Student," Charles Eliot not only led the movement to create the modern American research university for the Fordist era of mass production, he also established accreditation systems that judged every other college and university by the new principles that informed Harvard.  Harvard set the standard, literally, for everyone else.  That meant, with fewer resources and other traditions, every other school and university was not just "different" but "worse."

Over time, this has had a dampening effect on every innovation.  When Hampshire College decided to "ban" SAT and ACT scores--it not only disregards them; it refuses to look at them or report on student average test scores in anyway--it no longer could be part of the ratings and ranking systems.  It opted out of the whole system.

Now Northwestern is doing something similar.  The Tribune article continues: 

"Hamm said the decision not to pursue reaccreditation partly was influenced by the agency limiting the curriculum Medill could offer and restricting the ability of students to take courses in different schools. He said Medill is creating its own review process that will start this summer and bring in outside journalism experts.

'I'm not saying we don't want program review or accreditation. I'm saying we want a far better one," Hamm said. "The students will be involved. Over the past year or two, I've talked to a number of groups about how we want better ways to manage ourselves.'"

There are, of course, other points of view, especially from the accrediting agency, ACEJMC (Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Media). The piece in Inside Higher Education presents teh ACEJMC point of view, including the complaint that, instead of just dropping out of the system designed to support improvement and innovation, it would have served all of journalism education more if the school ranked tops in the country had worked with ACEJMC to improve the system.  That would have been a greater good not just for Medill's students but throughout the field (See: )

Northwestern is talking to other schools of journalism at other universities that also feel hamstrung by a too-rigid accreditation system, especially one that ties a top-ranking to more requirements within the J-school rather than in other schools and other disciplines in the university.  It seems, however, that they are talking about jumping ship, not improving the sailing.

Could it be a movement?  Is that a good thing?  Or not?  Those are the key questions.

And if ending accreditation is a movement, what is the harm?

What I learned yesterday, after tweeting this blog, is that, while governor of Texas, Rick Perry took on accreditation and proposed instead a series of "reforms" that, he insisted, made universities "better" for students.  A wise colleague from Texas has sent me these links that show the ways in which, by protesting accreditation, there was actually an imposition of more regulation, censorship, and defunding---the horrific trifecta of higher education abuse that we're seeing in state after state (and that I discuss in The New Education).  

Here are two links to follow.  This one discusses Perry's "solutions" to "problems":  

And here is another:

The point is that the word "innovation" has been used as a cudgel against K-12 and higher education, not just in Texas but in state after state.  Neoliberalism reigns..  And, my Texas colleague argues, sometimes formal professional and national accreditation standards are the only "defense" universities have, especially public universities who have seen their budgets eroded drastically even as state control has increased. 

Several educators who protest this tendency have been credited with a saying that goes: Public higher education has gone from being state supported, to state located, to state censored and controlled.   This is the opposite of the direction that we as a nation should be going right now.

This why my colleague on Twitter was alarmed when I extolled Medill and Hampshire for bucking accreditation and rankings systems.  In a condition of emergency, bureaucracy is sometimes all we have.  Addressing the condition of archaic, antiquated institutional structures that many educators would like to inform, the tendency toward exploitation makes innovation treacherous and difficult.

So what's the solution?

There is no one solution--but I see this as a reason not to despair but to hope.  Smart educators all over the country are taking the measure of their own, particular situation--their resources, restrictions, status, community, and, mostly, the needs of their students--and seeing how change can happen within the institutional parameters available to them. 

And sometimes, if you are #1, like Medill, you push those parameters in ways that can support the efforts of others.  It supports your own mission as an educational leader even as it also supports changes that are good for students.

And sometimes, if you are Hampshire, founded on principles of resistance, openness, and innovation, you make a change because, being dropped from the ranking system, actually enhances your mission and reputation within the community that counts for you:  your students, their parents, alums, and a reputational world of outliers.

And sometimes, if you are at a Texas public university when reform madness means harm to your students and faculty, the shield of national and state accreditation is what you have to work within.  And then you focus on reform on other levels where flexibility is possible, where curricular and pedagogical change can still make a major difference, and where your own success and survival are not jeopardized.

Introspection and Reflection as Pedagogical and Institution-Building Tools

We all know that, for learning outcomes beyond standardized test scores, for applicability and retention, some form of active learning--actually applying ideas in another situation--far tops any kind of transmission-style one-way pedagogy (lecture, typical unstructured "discussion," typical online video-based learning, and so forth).  We also know that, for students to realize they are learning, they need an extra step sometimes called "reflection," "metacognition," or "introspection."   Students take the measure of what they learn. One way is to make a baseline of where you are at the beginning of a learning process (testing with formative feedback, not high stakes outcomes) and to also set yourself some goals--and then redo the process again throughout and at the end, not only the formative testing but the readjusting of goals.  The learning happens when you then compare. 

We forget we are always learning and tend to remember our losses and regrets far more than we appreciate our own growth.   

This basic pedagogical process is the best way I know to also help those most invested in educational change--students and teachers/professors--on the complex way towards institutional change.  As a shared goal, carefully worked towards collectively and individually and voluntarily (including with incentives and rewards), it can lead to significant and impressive changes.  Educators all over the country have been part of such a process and made exciting, significant, inspiring models of change that work best for their individual institution and setting--and that others can learn from.

Structurally, and I return to the original point, that process is almost the opposite of the tedious, never-ending five-year plan to make sure you renew your accreditation with your public or professional association.  One is intrinsic and based on local needs and goals.  

The other is extrinsic, with pre-existing standards for assessment and outcome that, far too often, embody Goodhart's Law:  "When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure."  

While these five-year rituals often allow much wiggle room, they also can be enforced rigidly, be used to put into place outcomes-based assessments that not only are unsuitable for the particular discipline but that equate a certain measurable "productivity" or "success" or "outcomes" with other less quantifiable qualities that might still be worth supporting (in Medill's case, the idea that a contemporary journalist needs training in an array of areas not well-served by professionalized journalism training, whether in data visualization or East Asian studies, and that we are now in an era where a true journalist might need to other kinds of strengths.)

There is much to appreciate in Medill's bold move, in Hampshire's courage.  There is much to protect against in what my Twitter friend has helped us all to understand about what's happening in Texas.  Both of these can inspire and guide us as we think about the best ways to transform our own institutions.


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