For an audio version read by the author, please click here.
This essay first appeared in the October 31, 2023 Epoch Times.
This past week, eleven Jewish students were threatened and besieged by a mob of Hamas sympathizers at Cooper Union University in New York City.
This is one of the incidents of campus pro-terrorist activities that have more and more Americans asking, “What is going on at our colleges and universities?”
Some of us have been discussing that issue for a long time. But the issue finally is front and center.
In the first and second installments in this series, I explained that intolerance and orthodoxy are not new at universities. The tales of traditional academic freedom and open and free discussion are largely mythical. I also pointed out that when you cram thousands of young people into one place, guided only by a relative handful of adults not equipped or inclined to provide constructive guidance, you create a recipe for bad behavior. Political mischief-makers and federal dollars make matters worse.
In this installment, I identify two other factors that aggravate the problems: The misuse of accreditation and the misuse of sports.
The next (and final) installment will examine some potential cures.
Universities, colleges, and their component schools and departments usually seek accreditation from outside organizations. In many instances, state and federal laws require accreditation.
If handled properly, accreditation can be a good thing. It can document and publicize how well each institution prepares students to meet those students’ goals, so prospective attendees can make intelligent decisions. It can provide minimum standards so that college really is college.
But to be administered properly, accreditation must focus on results. Thus, an agency accrediting a liberal arts college should survey a representative sample of those graduating five years previously to determine how successful they were after graduation and the role their college played in their level of success. It might even test graduates to determine how much information they retained from their college years. A really good process would survey alumni ten and 20 years after graduation as well. This would reveal if the institution fostered good long-term results. Furthermore, it would document improvement or deterioration over time.
Similarly, a good accreditation process for vocational or professional schools (medicine, pharmacy, law, forestry, business, engineering, etc.) would survey alumni to see if they passed their state certification examinations. It would review the terms of their employment, and how successful they were in their chosen fields.
But accreditation agencies generally do not focus on results. Instead, they look mostly at “inputs:” How many books are in the library? How much technology does the school have? How much are professors paid?
For example, the American Bar Association (ABA) accredits law schools. You can see the ABA accreditation standards here (pdf). They say little about results, other than requiring law schools to post unspecified “employment outcomes” on their websites.
Instead, the ABA standards require faculty members to offer “pro bono” (free) legal services. They mandate that law schools provide faculty offices. They mandate that applicants take admissions tests. And they mandate that law schools adhere to the leftist “diversity and inclusion” agenda.
All of those requirements (except the last, of course) may be good things for schools to do. But they don’t measure results. The ABA does not require that schools show that prior graduates became successful lawyers, or how, specifically, the schools contributed to their success.
The Real Purposes of Accreditation
The foregoing raises the question, “What purposes do accreditation really serve?” Several, but here are two:
First, accreditation agencies collude with school administrators to help them get more money. The visitor from the accreditation agency may ask the dean, “What do you want?” The dean may say, “We want higher salaries (or more technology, or a new building).” So the visitor writes in his report, “This school’s salaries (or whatever) are too low, and if they are not raised, we may have to revoke accreditation.”
The dean then uses the report as leverage to get more cash from those who can provide it. If the school is a state institution, gullible journalists write reports that say, in essence, “Taxpayers will have to pony up more money for State University’s School of Widget Flinging, or the school will lose its accreditation!”
Another function of accreditation is to limit competition. Again, the ABA’s law school accreditation process may serve as an example.
In all but four states, you must have a degree from a law school accredited by the ABA before you can practice law. If you don’t have that degree, it doesn’t matter how well prepared to practice law you may be. It doesn’t matter that you got 100 percent on the Bar Exam.
This is strange, because traditionally, most American lawyers were educated by clerking at law firms before studying for and passing a state bar examination. But during the 20th century the ABA and compliant politicians, judges, and lawyers fashioned a university near-monopoly on legal education.
The result is to reduce the number of available professionals. If there are fewer professionals, there is less competition. Less competition jacks up the fees the consumer must pay.
The same people who create this affordability problem then purport to mitigate it. They create more government bureaucracies (such as taxpayer-funded clinics and legal services offices) and they license more partially-trained paraprofessionals.
The Misuse of Sports
Properly administered, sports programs promote college students’ physical and character development. And, properly administered, they promote the college educational mission.
At most universities, however—particularly large state institutions—sports programs serve very different purposes.
By creating fan loyalty, they anesthetize the general public, especially alumni, to institutional failures. A rabid University of Colorado “Buffs” fan is more likely to donate to the university and support taxpayer money for it, and less likely to ask embarrassing questions.
But to build fan loyalty, the team should win games. University competition for top athletes is expensive and it leads to some odd outcomes.
When I taught at the University of Montana, I saw Montanans wax rhapsodic about the success of their “Montana Grizzlies” football team. But most of the so-called “Montana Grizzlies” were not Montanans at all. They were recruited from other places for their ability to move a football—not for their ability to contribute to, or benefit from, the university’s academic environment. This remains true today: About 57 percent of the current “Montana” football team hails from elsewhere.
Colleges and universities really serious about education do not offer athletic scholarships and do not recruit students unable to contribute to their educational missions. Employing sports programs to blind people to institutional problems merely delays solutions to those problems.
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Next Installment: Proposed solutions.