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Accreditation, Our New Best Friend
Unless you have been lost in the wilds of Borneo for the last three or four years, you know that a great deal of change is occurring in accreditation circles. Spurred by demands for accountability, both regional and specialized accreditors have been revising their standards and redesigning the very process of accreditation.
This activity represents a dramatic turn of events. For faculty in the arts and sciences, specialized accreditors used to have the reputation of being "thieves," aiming to secure at least ninety baccalaureate hours (out of the usual total of one hundred and twenty) for themselves. Moreover, they used to describe this credit load as the "bare minimum" for training in their fields. Lately, however, some of those fields -- including some that carry the largest enrollments on our campuses -- have emphatically changed their thinking.
In trying to measure the quality of undergraduate programs, many specialized accreditors have made a shift from cataloguing inputs to assessing outcomes. And in so doing, they have discovered (or re-discovered) that some of the very traditional outcomes of liberal education are frankly essential to their respective professions. Suddenly, in fact, it seems that some of liberal education's best friends come from accrediting associations in teacher education, business, nursing, engineering, and so on.
For example, the position of the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) has been, for years now, that teachers ought to be the most liberally educated of our graduates. Likewise, when asked to list the desired outcomes of business study, a leading accreditor defined a quality program as one that emphasized six items, only one of which is "business learning" itself. And the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, in addition to listing several liberal education outcomes in The Essentials of Baccalaureate Education for Professional Nursing Practice (AACN, 1998), states that "Clinical judgments have as much to do with values and ethics as they do with science and technology."
Or consider the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology's new document, "ABET 2000," which replaces a hefty volume of accreditation criteria with a concise two-and-a-half page statement. In the past (in its "thievery days"), ABET used to allow up to perhaps twenty-four semester hours for coursework outside engineering and engineering-related science and math. But now they've reversed their approach. They require a minimum of one year of math and science and one-and-a-half years of engineering topics-this leaves up to a year-and-a-half for an institution to put its distinctive mark on students.
Moreover, ABET now judges the quality of engineering programs according to their success in fostering eleven abilities, including a mixture of particular engineering skills with the broad capacities traditionally associated with liberal education. In fact, ABET officers have sometimes even described six of these abilities as comprising a contemporary and expanded version of the medieval "trivium," with the other five corresponding to the "quadrivium."
Why did ABET change its criteria so radically? Partly in response to declining enrollments (and complaints of the rigid curriculum) in engineering-but only partly. Another factor was feedback from employers: skill in engineering was found to be just one out of six or seven traits that make an engineering graduate an "attractive hire" for major firms.
What else did employers say they want? The list may not surprise you: communication skills, critical thinking, ethical astuteness, cultural sensitivity, understanding of the socio-politico-economic environment, and the ability to learn across disciplinary boundaries.
Of course, none of this is to suggest that the accrediting bodies can simply snap their fingers and integrate liberal learning into the professions. Many faculty members and administrators have yet to catch on to this shift in priorities; many employers are still reluctant to hire the well-rounded graduates that they say they need; and few campuses have yet implemented outcomes-based assessments.
But if those of us who advocate liberal learning are looking for allies, we ought to recognize that some of our best friends now work at the specialized accrediting associations.
John Nichols is a NEH Distinguished Teaching Professor at Saint Joseph's College (IN) and a Senior Fellow with AAC&U's Greater Expectations Initiative.