WASC: Accreditor Foxes Guard Collegiate Henhouse

Editor’s Note: Tony Fels is associate professor of history at the University of San Francisco.

The nation’s recent financial crisis has highlighted the importance of regulatory watchdogs in exercising oversight of the nation’s financial institutions. Given my university’s experience with its educational regulator, the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC), maybe it’s time to pay as much attention to college accreditation as we’re paying to such credit-rating services as Moody’s and Standard and Poor’s. 

Colleges and universities are mostly insulated from any regulatory structure.  Although public universities are subject at least to the intervention of state governing boards, private institutions of higher learning appear to have no one looking over their shoulders, except when they come up for reaccreditation. 

In the United States, six regional accrediting agencies have arisen to provide this function. WASC is one of them, responsible for schools in California, Hawaii and the American territories in the Pacific.  If the instance I report on here is any indication of a larger state of affairs, a close examination of the accreditation system is in order.

Colleges and universities trade in ideas rather than money, so their principal ethical danger isn’t greed, but excessive zeal in service of some ideology. Nothing is more ruinous to the reasoned pursuit of truth, without which education becomes indoctrination.

Thus, you would think that WASC would take an interest in my charge that a dean’s office at my university likely rigged a departmental review to make the department look bad—a result in line with the administration’s political goals.

But if you think that, you’d be wrong.

In 2004-05, I was serving as chair of the history department at the University of San Francisco (USF) when, by school custom, our department came up for its ten-year review. The centerpiece of the review process is a report written by three outside evaluators who have visited the campus, read the department’s lengthy self-study, and consulted with students and faculty.  The method by which the three evaluators are selected is obviously important. 

At USF, when external reviewers are chosen by the dean’s office, formal guidelines call for the dean “to accommodate some of the department’s preferences” in the choice of the evaluators and in general to select reviewers, professionally competent within their field, who can supply “an objective outsider’s perspective on the quality of the program.”

In forming the history review team, however, the dean’s office ignored all nine of the history department’s qualified nominees and made no attempt to find even a single candidate mutually agreeable to the department and the dean’s office.  This was not its usual procedure and for the two other departments undergoing program reviews that year, the administration fully accommodated the preferences of department members. 

For the history department, the dean’s office selected a politically homogeneous team of three left-wing (not simply “liberal”) reviewers.  Contrary to the administrators’ later denials, the political leanings of at least two of these reviewers were known to the dean’s office in advance of their selection.  According to their official university websites, one reviewer taught a course entitled, “Historical Materialism: The Marxist Theory of the Past” (a highly unusual offering for a U.S. social historian), while a second reviewer had taken her students on a study-trip to Cuba.

The dean’s office further misled the history department when introducing its choices to us in advance of their site visit by omitting those parts of the reviewers’ resumes that displayed their political leanings.

It also chose for these same three evaluators two ethnic-minority males and one white female, at a time when the tenured historical profession in the United States was made up of 70% white males. Taken alone, this discrepancy could have indicated an admirable desire to make the team demographically diverse, but in the context of all the evidence in this case, it suggested an ulterior motive on the dean’s part to engineer a specific outcome. And when later asked to reveal the specific steps that it took in its selection process, the dean’s office failed to disclose any, including the size of its original pool of candidates and the number and names of candidates on its acknowledged short list.

While each of these separate actions might alone have been explained by chance or unusual circumstances (although this is doubtful), taken together they suggest intentional bias. The point is not that a Marxist historian, or even three Marxist historians, could never be objective or that it takes a white male on a committee to conduct a fair-minded evaluation (our department’s own nominees included six white women and one ethnic-minority man). 

Rather, the question is what motivated the dean’s office to form a review team in this way. I believe that the dean acted as she did because she wanted an evaluation that would criticize the department for failing to move quickly enough to diversify its faculty by race and gender.

At the time of the review the history department consisted of ten full-time members, including seven white men, two white women and one ethnic-minority man. While these proportions approximated national averages, they were considered insufficiently diverse by most personnel at USF, both inside and outside the department. And in the ten years preceding the review, the department had assembled a creditable record in efforts to achieve greater diversity, including voluntary participation in five ethnically-targeted searches, resulting in two job offers, one of which was accepted. Evidently, those and other efforts were not good enough for the dean’s office. Rather than speak to the department openly about its concerns, it apparently chose the devious path of attempting to engineer a negative program review.

When USF came up for reaccreditation in 2007, WASC, as is customary, solicited grievances from faculty, employees and students.  My submission charged that the dean’s office had violated the ethical principles of fairness, professionalism, transparency, accountability, honesty, and a commitment to follow stated procedures in an attempt to influence the outcome of the history review.

The ethical principles I listed are embraced under Standard One of WASC’s standards of accreditation. Standard One requires that a university “functions with integrity,” “exhibits integrity in its operations,” and “upholds sound ethical practices….” I asked WASC to investigate my charge that USF had failed to adhere to those principles.

WASC dismissed my charges without any investigation. Had it accepted my submission as a legitimate grievance, WASC would have been obligated by its own rules to ask for a formal reply from USF, to pursue questions of fact, and to render a judgment. It wished to do none of these things.  Executive Director Ralph A. Wolff explained that the issue was merely “an internal matter.” “Given that the selection of program reviewers is an internal matter at the institution,” Dr. Wolff wrote to me, “there is no basis for us to consider this as a breach of integrity.”

It is hard to imagine WASC taking such a hands-off position had the same charges originated, for example, in a review of a biology department where evidence pointed to tampering with the review team in order to bring the teaching of intelligent design into the curriculum.

I appealed the decision to Dr. Sherwood Lingenfelter, WASC’s chair of the board.  He  endorsed Dr. Wolff’s reasoning, writing, “the situation you describe does not demonstrate ‘significant non-compliance’ [with the Standards of Accreditation]…” Without having conducted an inquiry into my charges, it is hard to see how WASC could judge that the ethical non-compliance I alleged was either significant or insignificant.

It was also revealing that Dr. Lingenfelter referred to this dispute as a “political conflict.”  To call a dispute a “political conflict” is to relegate it to a domain of mere opinion (or, worse, personal animosity), as if the outcome has no consequences for the integrity of the institution. WASC probably wanted to view this dispute as pitting a university trying to advance faculty diversity against a faculty member trying to thwart it—which was not the case at all. 

My defense of fairness, due process, and transparency is indeed political, but not in the pejorative sense that WASC meant. Rather, it defends an Anglo-American liberal tradition that underwrites rules of a civil society by which disagreements can be channeled into constructive outcomes rather than into violence.

These same political values safeguard universities as places of free expression and reasoned argument. To some people on the left (as on the right), by contrast, all politics is tainted by crass group interest. The goal is simply to defeat your enemy by any means at your disposal and, if on top, as the left currently finds itself at USF and apparently at WASC, to stay on top.

In the case of the history review, because the dean’s office had circumvented its own stated procedures for ensuring balance and objectivity in the selection of reviewers, the evaluation written by the chosen team became an inflammatory document that distorted the department’s record in multiple areas, tarnished reputations, touched off a minor witch hunt for “racists” and “sexists,” created bitter factions, and hastened the departure of one member. The dean’s apparent breach of ethics produced a terribly destructive outcome.

It is not too late for WASC to reverse course, since USF’s reaccreditation process is still ongoing through 2009-10. If the accrediting body’s decision to reject an investigation into what happened in the selection of the history review team stands, college administrators in California and the Pacific region will know that they can “stack the deck” with impunity when they choose outside readers and evaluators for tenure cases and program reviews—that is, provided the results agree with WASC’s political orientation.

The depressing lesson from all this is that both college administrators and accrediting agencies, no less than groups of faculty members, are sometimes so politicized that fairness and integrity get trampled.