Tag: Regional Accreditation

Gordon College Will Not Lose Its Accreditation

Gordon SealGordon College burst into the news last June when President Michael Lindsey was a signatory to a letter to President Obama requesting religious exception for his upcoming Executive Order (he didn’t grant the request). Suddenly, media stories appeared asking about Gordon’s policy toward LGBT students even though Gordon College had nothing to do with the executive order. City agencies and school systems started saying that Gordon couldn’t use their facilities.

Then word came that the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, Gordon’s accrediting body, was putting the college on the agenda for the September commission meeting. The NEASC made clear that the accreditation wasn’t at risk in the September meeting, but at the meeting they requested that Gordon provide a report reviewing their policies on sexuality to insure that they didn’t violate commission standards due in September of 2015.

News of the commission’s letter sparked reaction from social commenters. A couple of the most reasoned responses were by Collin Hansen from The Gospel Coalition and from Andrew Sullivan in The Dish; two people writing from very different positions on the political spectrum. A google search found lots of more vociferous responses (including some references to “Gay Brown Shirts“, whatever those are) that I left unread.  Then there are the predictable bloggers who use the Gordon story as the latest illustration of “what the world is coming to” or arguing about “driving traditional Christians out of the public square.”

Reading the news from Wenham, Massachusetts through the lens of secularization and culture wars significantly misunderstands both Christian colleges and the way regional accreditation works. Having had significant experience in both over recent decades, it is clear to me that Gordon’s accreditation is in no danger at all, as they make clear on their webpage:

Contrary to recent media reports, Gordon’s accreditation is not in jeopardy, as its admission and employment policies have always been in full compliance with the NEASC Standards for Accreditation and with nondiscrimination employment law, which has been in place in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts since 1989.

I have served as a regional accreditation evaluator in both the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU) and the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC). I have been trained as an evaluator for the Higher Learning Commission (formerly North Central Association). I have been part of four full-scale visits, three focused visits, and served on a program review council. I have written numerous reports to accreditation agencies and two full scale self-studies. Needless to say, I’ve developed a fairly good read on the logic of regional accreditation.

Accreditation  is a peer-review process. The “standards” are developed by representatives of the various educational sectors in the region and every school has the opportunity to advise and consent on new policy standards. When evaluators come to the school, they tend to represent like institutions (I always went to private special interest, usually faith based, institutions). This does get confusing when regional accreditation is the gateway to the Title IV financial aid funds but it’s an indirect linkage between institutional accreditation and the DOE.

More importantly, the central driver of regional accreditation is the unique mission of the institution. In the regions where I’ve served, it’s the very first standard to meet. You make clear who you are as an institution, the ways in which that is distinctive, and the mechanisms the administration and board use to prevent “mission drift”. Every other standard or policy is read through the lens of that mission/identity. The standards set general guidelines (“school has an appropriate student life office“) but the specifics of what that means is left to the institution to describe in ways that flow from its unique mission.

Sometimes, events arise that result in a question being raised by the accrediting body. The question in asked in the spirit of “how have you ensured that this situation doesn’t fall outside standards within the context of institutional identity“. It then falls on the institution to do an internal quality assurance review and respond to the question.

I had an example that reminded me of the Gordon College situation. As an evaluator, I pledged to protect the confidentiality of the schools I visited, so I’ll paint with broad strokes. This school had a distinct religious mission. It also had experienced a conflict between faculty and administrators over a particular matter that put issues of intellectual inquiry and religious mission in tension, a conflict that spilled out into the local newspaper. As we were preparing to visit the institution, we were told of these circumstances and that it was likely that they’d come up in our meetings with campus personnel. We worked hard not to take sides in the matter, but used the opportunity to suggest that the institution review its policy on intellectual inquiry within the context of its religious mission.

This is exactly how Gordon is responding, as the statement from the NEASC makes institutional identity very clear.

At its meeting on September 18, 2014, the Commission on Institutions of Higher Education, NEASC, considered whether Gordon College’s traditional inclusion of ‘homosexual practice’ as a forbidden activity in its Statement on Life and Conduct was contrary to the Commission’s Standards for Accreditation.Gordon College President D. Michael Lindsay earlier submitted information about Gordon College, its mission as a Christian institution, its evangelical Christian identity, and its history of respectful self-critique and of dialogue with individuals of diverse backgrounds. The Commission found the information submitted by the College to be thorough and pertinent. It commends Gordon College for undertaking a period of discernment over the next twelve to eighteen months.The process will involve convening a working group of 20 representative trustees, faculty, administrators, staff and students to study the matter and conducting a series of robust discussions among a variety of Gordon constituencies to learn from them. Any change in Gordon’s current policy is a responsibility of its Board of Trustees. The Commission has asked the College to submit a report for consideration at the Commission’s September 2015 meeting describing the process and its outcomes, to ensure that the College’s policies and procedures are non-discriminatory and that it ensures its ability to foster an atmosphere that respects and supports people of diverse characteristics and backgrounds, consistent with the Commission’s Standards for Accreditation.

As I review the NEASC standards, the standard that most aligns with the bolded section in the statement above shows up in the “Integrity” standard:

11.5  The institution adheres to non-discriminatory policies and practices in recruitment, admissions, employment, evaluation, disciplinary action, and advancement. It fosters an atmosphere within the institutional community that respects and supports people of diverse characteristics and backgrounds.

Like everyone else, I have my suggestions on how they could go about ensuring non-discrimination within the context of institutional identity. But that’s not my job nor the job of any blogger nor the job of the NEAC (as they observe). It’s Gordon’s task as an expression of their commitment to mission.

Gordon will be able to respond to the questions within the context of their mission with little difficulty (beyond a few more committee meetings). Moreover, they will be stronger for having done so as they revisit practices and policies in the context of institutional identity. Gordon will continue to be a distinctly Christian institution accredited by the NEAC for years to come.

Academic Freedom and Christian Colleges: Responding to the Conn Articles

Coens
This is not the Conns.

This week a pair of opinion pieces concerning Christian Higher Education burst onto my social media feeds. Since I had been on the road, the second one caught my eye first. Steven Conn, professor of history at Ohio State, wrote a piece in the Huffington Post titled “Is ‘Christian College’ an Oxymoron?“.  While trying to get my head around his very incomplete argument, I started seeing responses to a Conn article that had appeared in the Chronicle the beginning of the week. This one, titled “The Great Accreditation Farce“, was written by Peter Conn, professor of english and education at the University of Pennsylvania. I’m not sure how Steve and Peter are connected but I did find at least one piece that they co-wrote, so I’m assuming that they are brothers. (This is not a picture of them but every time I think of the idea of Conn brothers, these guys come to mind.)

I’ll try to summarize their arguments (using first names for brevity). Steven’s argument is that a school with an a priori faith commitment, especially one with a formal faith statement faculty must adhere to, is incompatible with academic freedom. Using examples of Bryan College (which he initially placed in Dayton, OH instead of Dayton, TN), Cedarville University, and Wheaton College (IL), he explores actions taken by administrators that have caused faculty members to leave (or been fired). He suggests that taxpayers might be unaware that “we subsidize religion through our system of support for higher education”. His complaints about Bryan come primarily from New York Times stories on the Bryan controversies and Cedarville’s from an 18 year old story from Harpers. He rightly looks at the religious history of American universities and says that their religious groundings shifted at places like Cornell and Harvard late in the 19th century. He goes on:

And for good reason. Higher education is dedicated to untrammeled inquiry rather than faithful submission. It starts with questions and explores them to their limits, not with answers that are then back-filled. It cultivates skepticism rather than insisting on credulity. Christian colleges pursue the opposite agenda. Questions already have answers …

Peter’s argument begins with a standard recitation of concerns about regional accreditation: too much focus on inputs, not enough attention to quality concerns, too tradition bound. He suggests that the primary motivation for schools to be accredited is for their students to gain access to Title IV funds (Pell Grants, Work Study, and Subsidized Loans). He cites two reports from the past decade that suggest accreditation needs attention. He also mentions his experience in overseeing a self-study and serving on an evaluation team at another school. Then he turns to his real agenda. Christian colleges should not be accredited because “they erect religious tests for truth”. He cites a faculty member at Bryan (from the New York Times) and critiques Wheaton for having its faculty sign faith statements. He says:

Providing accreditation to colleges like Wheaton makes a mockery of whatever academic and intellectual standards the process of accreditation is supposed to uphold.

There have been some wonderful responses written in the last few days. Baylor Humanities professor Alan Jacobs and Wheaton Provost Stanton Jones provided excellent rebuttals. Jacobs focuses on the actual dynamics of accreditation (as opposed to those suggested by Peter). Jones writes eloquently about the moral foundations of all scholarly inquiry.

My responses to the Conns is based on my unique career path. I have been in Christian Higher Ed for 33 years, serving as faculty member and as senior academic administrator. I’ve been in five different Christian institutions and know quite a bit about a score of others. I have served as an evaluator in two of the six accreditation regions and been trained for the Higher Learning Commission. I’ve written a self-study, dealt with academic freedom questions from my faculty colleagues, and teach sociology in Christian institutions (which needs academic freedom protections from time to time!).

I’ll respond to Peter’s claims first. From everything I learned in my years working with accreditors (I’ve done three full-scale visits, four follow-up visits, and served on a program review panel) the central theme has always been about the primacy of institutional mission. What does it mean for Wheaton College to pursue its unique role? That must be clearly defined and give direction to all other aspects of the life of the College. Academic Freedom is seen within the context of mission. The same is true at the University of Pennsylvania. For the record, the last ten years has seen the regional accreditors moving rapidly to student outcome measures, increased focus on issues of alignment, and the significant role of faculty governance as part of protecting that alignment of mission, program, and policy. Boards of Trustees must be independent bodies that, while perhaps representing a sponsoring denomination, cannot be answering to the denomination. The schools are expected to be independent and protecting the educational mission at it impacts students. (That’s another distinction one could explore: academic freedom should find its expression in student learning and not simply in faculty statements.) I would wager that our impact on students at Christian institutions, especially on controversial issues, is greater that than of the University of Pennsylvania.

Steven’s argument about academic freedom is hard to fathom. He focuses on two somewhat rogue institutions (even by Christian college standards). I’ve written before about both Bryan and Cedarville. In both cases (as with Shorter), the situation was one where the administration violated principles of shared governance and forced changes upon existing faculty. They did have their academic freedom limited by dominant positions on Adam and Eve or the role of women in ministry.

But this was not inherent in all Christian Colleges. it  was the result of failure of alignment of mission and educational process in two specific institutions. Here’s a recent piece on on a Calvin College faculty member’s academic freedom regarding the study of human origins. The schools I’ve served carefully wrestle with the need for considering alternative viewpoint in ways that are accessible by students. It’s true that one needs to be more nuanced about how to present those viewpoints and that a capable academic administrator (I pray I was one) is able to deflect external attacks by pointing back to the centrality of institutional mission.

As I’ve written, our commitment as Christian institutions and as Christian scholars is not to some rigid dogma that constrains our free thinking. It is a belief that we are doing important work in preparing our students to live in the Kingdom of God. Through the leading of the Holy Spirit and the hard work of community, we model what real inquiry looks like. I would love for Steven (who thinks he couldn’t be invited to Cedarville) to spend a few days with the faculty at Spring Arbor. He’d learn quite a bit.

One more thing: My friend George Yancey has written on anti-religious bias in the academy. While he and I disagree on the extent of that, these articles seem to demonstrate his point. I cannot imagine either the Chronicle of Higher Education or the Huffington Post publishing a takedown of research universities as sloppily argued as the pieces by the Conns. We’d have a much higher standard to meet in terms of structure of argument and evidentiary support. The bias comes out in how easy it is for critics to cherry-pick egregious cases.

This is why the rest of us have got to find a way of changing the media narrative about Christian Higher Education.