Secretive Downgrade of Teaching, Learning Standards Prompts Backlash from Faculty and Students

Hundreds voice concern over accreditor’s perceived attack on academic freedom, professional development and job security, sparking calls for educator inclusion

BOSTON, MA – As the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC) begins its quarterly meeting on higher education, hundreds of students and faculty from across Massachusetts are calling on the accreditor to end its push to weaken teaching and learning standards – and to allow meaningful faculty input into any potential change in benchmarks. The action comes as the NEASC Commission on Institutions of Higher Education (CIHE) reviews a set of proposed standards today and Friday that could create unstable learning environments for students, roll back academic freedom and further reduce institutions’ investments in classroom education.

“Endorsing the degradation of faculty working conditions and academic freedom is shortsighted and irresponsible,” said Henry Bison, a student at Northeastern University. “Instead, NEASC should work to ensure professors are provided fair pay, job security and academic freedom. And it should hold colleges that miss those benchmarks accountable.”

The U.S. Department of Education entrusts NEASC and its Commission on Institutions of Higher Education as the “reliable authority on the quality of education” at colleges and universities. To fulfill this responsibility, NEASC crafted a set of base standards that colleges and universities must meet to achieve accreditation. Failure to do so bars institutions from federal student aid dollars.

These standards explicitly call for fair treatment and meaningful inclusion of faculty – from adjuncts to tenured professors – in decisions that affect teaching and learning. But since the summer of 2014, NEASC has been working exclusively with college and university administrators to effectively lower standards for faculty job security, professional development and academic freedom — going as far as to exclude non-tenure faculty from directories. Of the 20 commissioners affiliated with colleges and universities, 19 are administrators.

“NEASC’s selection criteria for its higher education commissioners clearly states that faculty must be involved in this critical process, but the current commission is comprised almost wholly of administrators,” observed Laurie LaPorte, an adjunct lecturer at Boston University. “It invites the questions: Which university president suggested that deleting the standard of ‘reasonable contractual security’ would improve teaching and learning? Which provost thought that ‘protecting and fostering academic freedom for all faculty regardless of rank or term of appointment’ was harmful to student success and needed revision?”

Even as accreditation agencies face increased scrutiny for failing to ensure colleges and universities fulfill their educational responsibilities, NEASC has declined to reach out to New England students and faculty whose learning and teaching conditions are directly affected by accreditor benchmarks. A recent survey of New England faculty revealed that just eight percent of professors report being asked to provide input. Four out of five faculty members were entirely unaware that NEASC was even revising its standards.

“In 2015, it is disappointing to see that accreditors responsible for encouraging quality do not seem to be able to stem the negative tide. NEASC’s proposed standards neither recognize the changes in the faculty nor embrace ways institutions should be working to support faculty,” said University of Southern California professor Adrianna Kezar, an accreditation commissioner on the Western Association of Schools and Colleges’ Senior College and Co-Director of the Pullias Center for Higher Education. “We are unlikely to obtain suitable changes unless accreditation processes are rethought. Accreditation standards should be created with stakeholders who they impact and faculty of all types should have been given voice to inform new standards – including adjuncts.”

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A Higher Road for Higher Education – a project of SEIU 509/Faculty Forward Massachusetts – is leading the statewide effort to hold the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC) accountable to its mission of quality assurance in higher education. For more information visit http://HigherRoadMA.org.

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