When Discipline-Specific Accreditors Go Woke

If an academic field gets politicized, consider looking to its professional overseers.

Across the country, an increasing number of universities now require scholars to submit “diversity statements” in hiring, promotion, and tenure. Many have abandoned or downplayed standardized tests in the name of racial equity. Meanwhile, offices with flowery titles like “Inclusive Excellence” frequently conduct training sessions that espouse spurious claims about “microaggressions” and “white supremacy culture.”

By now, it’s clear that many policies that fall under the banner of “diversity, equity, and inclusion” (DEI)—like the ones I’ve listed above—pose a threat to academic freedom, good scholarship, and sound education. No doubt, many campus reformers have already taken on the project of reigning in the DEI bureaucracy.

But to roll back the continuous overreach of DEI, it’s important to understand the various institutional incentives that lead to its growth in the first place. I write to highlight just one dimension: accreditation. Increasingly, the various bodies that accredit colleges and schools—from medical schools to journalism schools to schools of engineering—push for far-reaching and ideologically-laden DEI policies. For an institution to resist such a mandate is a risky and complicated move.

Medical Schools

The Liaison Committee on Medical Education (LCME) has long included diversity in its accreditation standards, but over the last few years its diversity requirement has elicited increasingly exhaustive DEI measures from medical schools across the country.

Increasingly, the bodies that accredit colleges and schools push for far-reaching DEI policies.In 2020, the LCME re-accredited Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU) but deemed the medical school lacking in the area of faculty diversity. The medical school responded with a comprehensive “Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Anti-Racism Strategic Action Plan,” which was designed “in alignment with accreditation requirements.” That plan is notable for its strong warning to those who don’t get with the program. One step reads, “Require ongoing training and learning opportunities related to DEI and anti-racism for learners, staff, faculty and administrative leaders. Ensure there are consequences for individuals who are not compliant with the required training.” Another reads, “Include a section in promotion packages where faculty members report on the ways they are contributing to improving DEI, anti-racism and social justice. Reinforce the importance of these efforts by establishing clear consequences and influences on promotion packages.”

Other medical schools have attributed their far-reaching DEI policies to the LCME’s demands. The UNC School of Medicine published its “Task Force for Integrating Social Justice Into the Curriculum,” indicating that it would make political advocacy a mandatory part of medical education and require faculty to adhere to “core concepts” of anti-racism. After the plan drew heavy media attention, the dean of the medical school defended the report by pointing to the LCME. “Many or most of the recommendations,” he said in a public remark, “really were created as a response to concerns that were highlighted by our accreditation agency, the LCME.”

Medical Residency Programs

Meanwhile, the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME), which accredits residency programs, is even more explicit about its diversity standards. In a lecture on diversity in graduate medical education, the ACGME’s Chief Diversity Officer, William McDade, was asked what he thought of reviewing fellowship applications without including names, to avoid bias. His response: “One of the things that will get your application flagged is [if] you use the word ‘colorblind.’”

Diversity and inclusion are a part of the ACGME’s “Common Program Requirements,” and McDade has made clear that this should involve ongoing DEI efforts. To that end, the ACGME has created a toolkit for administrators called “Equity Matters,” designed to help university leaders embed DEI into their institutions, in alignment with the requirement.

The “Equity Matters” toolkit—again, designed to help administrators carry out the ACGME’s accreditation standards—is eyebrow-raising for its overt use of ideologically-charged language and tropes. One of its training courses, titled “The Power of Culture,” states the following:

In the US, the dominant culture could be described as Anglo, Western, affluent, capitalist, success-oriented, and male. Standards of appearance, language, and even goals are often explicitly linked to these ideals. Scholars Tema Okun and Keith Jones argue that these standards come from the “systematic, institutionalized centering of whiteness.” This can mean explicitly and implicitly privileging whiteness and discriminates [sic] against non-Western and non-white professionalism standards related to dress code, speech, work style, and timeliness.

It’s telling that the course relies heavily on the framework provided by Tema Okun, much more a peddler of folklore than a scholar. Okun notoriously argues that a random mix of cultural characteristics—including “individualism,” “objectivity,” and “a sense of urgency”—constitute “white supremacy culture.” The Equity Matters program draws directly from Okun’s work.

It’s worth noting that medical education has thoroughly embraced the DEI revolution, perhaps more so than any other discipline. Promoting DEI has become a feature of many medical school professors’ jobs. A recent report found that 43.6 percent of medical schools have tenure standards that “reward faculty scholarship and service on DEI topics.” There is likely no single reason for this, but the influence of overbearing accreditors is clearly one contributing factor.

Social Work

In June of 2022, the Accreditation Council for Social Work Education (ACSWE) adopted new “Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards,” making its commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion, and anti-racism even more painstakingly explicit. The new policy gives a nod to virtually every theme of progressive identity politics, as just a few excerpts illustrate:

Social work programs integrate anti-racism, diversity, equity, and inclusion (ADEI) approaches across the curriculum.

Programs recognize the pervasive impact of White supremacy and privilege and prepare students to have the knowledge, awareness, and skills necessary to engage in anti-racist practice.

Faculty and administrators model anti-racist and anti-oppressive practice and respect for diversity and difference.

Students are responsible for their learning, collaborating with peers and colleagues, and practicing with historically and currently oppressed populations through an anti-racist lens.

Already, this new policy appears to have made an impact. For example, when the University of Tennessee’s College of Social Work created its “Diversity Action Plan,” which mandated a new social justice major and established a “critical consciousness” assessment for students, it specifically cited a draft of the ACSWE’s policy.

Public Health

The Council on Education for Public Health (CEPH), meanwhile, calls for all Masters of Public Health graduates to demonstrate their facility with the concept of “health equity.” “Discuss the means by which structural bias, social inequities and racism undermine health and create challenges to achieving health equity at organizational, community and societal levels,” the accreditation standard reads.

The CEPH standards are not as explicit as the social work standards, but they still serve to push DEI programming into schools of public health. In June of 2021, the UNC Gillings School of Public Health updated its Inclusive Excellence Action Plan, which requires the school to infuse “racism, social justice and health equity” education throughout its curriculum. The plan explicitly points to accreditation standards as its raison d’etre.

CEPH standards provide an impetus for infusing truly radical methodologies into the already fraught field of public health.Meanwhile, the CEPH standards also provide an impetus for infusing truly radical methodologies into the already fraught field of public health. For example, a 2021 article in the journal Pedagogy in Health Promotion discusses how to integrate a framework called “Public Health Critical Race Praxis” into public health education and research. Notably, the authors of the article cite the CEPH standards, pointing to them as a reason for adopting the framework—that is, for infusing critical race theory into basic public health education and research.

Of course, social work and public health might be two of the most progressive disciplines in academia. Many schools of public health and social work would already be inclined to implement DEI policies even without pressure from accreditors. Yet, these accreditation standards can still serve to intensify those DEI policies, as they shield the disciplines from any sort of corrective pushback from outside. To stop the initiatives would violate the demands of accreditors.

The list goes on. The American Bar Association is now notorious for its DEI education requirements. The Accreditation Board of Engineering and Technology recently proposed—and reportedly passed—revised standards that will require faculty to demonstrate their “knowledge of appropriate institutional policies on diversity, equity, and inclusion.” The Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications likewise devotes a standard to “Diversity and Inclusiveness.”

In many cases, these standards are vague, and their implementation is opaque. But they illustrate an important feature of institutional capture. The pressure comes from all directions, not merely from student activists, zealous professors, or enterprising administrators. The process of reform will thus require rewiring multiple incentives. Accreditation will have to be a part of that conversation. And because many accreditors are formally recognized by the state—something that can be revoked—they might ultimately serve as a promising first-step.

John Sailer is a fellow at the National Association of Scholars. He lives in Winston-Salem.