Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Jumping on the accreditation bandwagon/boondoggle

On my campus, accreditation (or alternatively, the threat of de-accreditation) carries political weight. Programs and departments seem to get additional resources or support if they can persuade someone in power that unless they receive said resources or support, they won't be accredited or their existing accreditation is jeopardized.

Now, I don't have any particular axe to grind against accrediting academic programs. In professional areas in particular, where it's expected that students' education will prepare them to be competent professionals, it makes sense to have organizations of competent professionals determine whether a program can (or will) succeed in preparing students. Accreditation amounts, in effect, to peer review for academic programs. Indeed, I'd be frightened if there weren't accrediting bodies overseeing (say) medical education.
On the other hand, accreditation looks to me like something of a boondoggle in contemporary undergraduate education: a lever that programs can pull, especially in periods where resources are tight, to ensure that their programs are well-resourced, even at the expense of others. Of course, all academic programs should be concerned about their quality and have some way of investigating that (assessment yeehah!). But those disciplines with accrediting bodies arrogate an unfair rhetorical (and political) advantage: You see it's not just that we think we need X, Y, and Z to assure the academic quality of our program. Esteemed National Accrediting Body says we need X, Y, and Z to assure the academic quality of our program. And what administrator is immune to the collective judgment of the academic community?

Now, so far as I am aware, academic programs in English, history, or other humanities do not have accreditation. But why not — and why shouldn't we in philosophy try to develop accreditation standards and practices so that we can hop on the bandwagon/boondoggle as well? I think the emerging consensus about the main philosophical organization in the U.S. — the good ol' APA — is that it does not have a clear agenda to promote the discipline and that the need is diminishing for various functions it once performed (advertising jobs, organizing meetings, etc.). But surely this would be something the APA could help us do and put its weight behind.

So philosophers: Would you support the establishment of a national body to develop accrediting standards for undergraduate (or even graduate?) philosophy programs?  I've made the initial case for it here. But what should we worry about with such a proposal? And what would it ultimately look like — the standards, the evaluation procedures, etc.?


  1. I am worried that accreditation leads to a closed shop. Representatives or friends of or graduates from the already accredited programmes will sit on the board that decides about new applications.
    Why would they create new competition?

  2. Good points Michael.

    I see this at my own place - accreditation concerns are typically raised by pre-professional programs, and in my experience usually translates into "we can't teach as much as everyone else because of X, Y, Z demands on us by the accreditation boards." Which means that not only do they get more resources, but they (those programs) start to operate separately from the rest of the school, diminishing community and raising resentment.

    I'm not sure how this would be done in philosophy, but before thinking about going in this direction we need a far better PR game on why philosophy is important. Otherwise, we'll create such standards and schools will say "ah, not worth the trouble having that philosophy program."


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