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Public University Accreditation Is Latest Front in Right-Wing War on Education

If right-wingers succeed in removing accreditation of a school, its students will lose access to federal financial aid.

Conventional wisdom tells us that every crisis contains an opportunity, and the right wing in the United States is wasting no time in proving this true. Take public schooling. “The uncertain period following pandemic destruction [is] an ideal moment to reimagine U.S. education,” Frederick M. Hess, senior fellow and director of education policy at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, wrote in his recently released book, The Great School Rethink.

Hess is not alone in his reactionary revisioning. Groups including the American Enterprise Institute, The Heritage Foundation, the Family Research Council and the Manhattan Institute, alongside conservative talk radio and other media, have raced to formulate and impose their wish list on what students can learn and what teachers can teach. It’s a long roster and extends from banning the teaching of anything that could possibly be dubbed “critical race theory” (CRT), to eliminating programs that promote and support diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). Also included are efforts to exclude transgender athletes from women’s teams, the reframing of curricula to focus exclusively on Western civilization, the elimination of gender and ethnic studies classes and majors, and placing fixed limits on tenure and faculty governance.

And now a new bugaboo has been added: The agencies that award accreditation to colleges, universities, and technical and vocational training programs, both online and on brick-and-mortar campuses, are under fire.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is leading the charge against the “inordinate amount of power” that he believes accreditors exert. Likewise, former President Donald Trump in May of this year announced that he would “fire” accreditors if he is reelected. His reason? They fail to protect students from the “Marxist maniacs and lunatics” that he envisions at the helm of U.S. higher education.

Then there’s Christopher Rufo, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and one of the masterminds behind the national campaign to squelch CRT and the teaching of truthful (if unflattering) depictions of U.S. history. Rufo, a DeSantis adviser who is on the board of New College of Florida — an entity that is taking steps to dismantle the once-LGBTQIA+ friendly honors college — has also declared his intent to “liberate” Florida’s public colleges from “cultural hostage takers.”

Calling accreditation “the next target,” Rufo is pushing the Accreditation for College Excellence Act, a bill introduced in the House by former NFL star Rep. Burgess Owens (R-Utah). The bill is intended to amend the Higher Education Act to prohibit accrediting agencies from “requir[ing], encourag[ing], or coerc[ing]” colleges, universities or training programs to meet “political litmus tests” that support the recruitment and retention of diverse students and faculty. Neither Rufo nor Hess responded to Truthout’s request for comment.

Getting Accredited

What, exactly, is accreditation and why does it matter?

According to the Department of Education (DOE), accreditors are independent agencies that serve as gatekeepers to ensure that post-secondary education programs provide students with the knowledge, skills and training they’re paying for. As the DOE website explains, accreditation is meant as a guarantee that the education offered meets “acceptable levels of quality.”

The agencies that award accreditation to colleges, universities, and technical and vocational training programs, both online and on brick-and-mortar campuses, are under fire.

The multifaceted accreditation process typically includes an annual self-review that allows faculty, students and staff to reflect on the college as a whole, and then zero-in on specific programs or departments. The review is subsequently submitted to the accreditation agency to keep them up to speed about the school’s structure and functioning. The self-study further provides the evaluating team with demographic data and other factual information about changes in the student body. Visits to campus by the accrediting agency are routine, as are meetings between stakeholders — students, faculty, staff, building maintenance crews and administrators — and the accreditors.

The renewal of accreditation takes place on a regular cycle that can range from once every few years to once a decade. Completion can take several years; after the process is finalized, schools can be fully or provisionally accredited or be put on probation; schools can also lose accreditation if they commit fraud or promise things, like helping students find employment, that are not delivered.

Until recently, most academics found the accreditation process burdensome and oftentimes superficial, but not controversial. Still, they knew that the stakes of the review are high and can have serious implications for an institution. For example, students who attend unaccredited programs cannot receive any form of federal financial aid — Pell Grants, loans or work-study awards. Worse, certificates or degrees from unaccredited programs are essentially worthless and credits “earned” do not transfer.

DeSantis Retaliates

But let’s turn back to Florida.

The kerfuffle over accreditation initially came to a head there after the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges — one of seven major college/university accreditors — criticized the University of Florida for attempting to block three professors from joining a lawsuit to challenge the voting restrictions that DeSantis had promulgated in 2021, calling the move a violation of the professors’ right to free speech.

This enraged DeSantis, who immediately denounced the “accreditation cartel.” His administration also introduced retaliatory legislation in the statehouse to require all public institutions in the Sunshine State to change accreditors every five years. Similar measures have since been introduced in North Carolina and Texas; all are pending.

The DOE jumped into the fray last summer, announcing plans to require colleges to get DOE approval before changing accreditors. Until DeSantis’s announcement, accrediting agencies were permanently charged with overseeing programs in designated geographic areas: the South, the Midwest, New England, the Western states, the Southwest, the Northwest, etc. Failure to get prior permission to switch accreditors, the DOE warned, could be consequential. If the DOE determined that the request was “an attempt to evade oversight,” it could result in the loss of federal funds.

It’s too soon to tell how this will play out. At the same time, support for accreditors — and opposition to the right’s entire educational playbook — have begun to gain steam.

Accreditors and Allies Mobilize

Cierra Kaler-Jones is the executive director of Rethinking Schools, a 37-year-old nonprofit social justice magazine and book publisher devoted to educational equity. She sees the attack on accreditation as an attack on diversity and racial and gender inclusivity.

“The right’s campaign is meant to reduce trust in higher education and dismantle and disrupt public schooling. The goal is to privatize both K-12 and higher education.”

“Even though they’re not stringent enough, most of the major accrediting agencies have requirements related to DEI,” she told Truthout. “Some also have requirements related to protecting and promoting freedom of expression and opposing censorship.”

In addition, Kaler-Jones sees the attacks on accreditation as part of the right-wing effort to restrict who has access to education and knowledge. “The right’s campaign is meant to reduce trust in higher education and dismantle and disrupt public schooling,” she continued. “The goal is to privatize both K-12 and higher education.”

What’s more, she told Truthout, the right’s campaigns have had an impact, causing some teachers to self-censor. “There is a great deal of policing of people who teach the truth about U.S. history, and there’s policing of the topics and issues that can be engaged in coursework,” she explained. “This increased surveillance has made some teachers fearful about bringing their full selves into the classroom.”

Similarly, Irene Mulvey, president of the American Association of University Professors, says that, “Accreditation has become a target in red states and by right-wing politicians because they’ve learned that robust and well-regarded accreditation presents a barrier to their attempts to inject partisan politics into higher education. They are dragging accreditors into this to dismantle that barrier. It’s an egregious violation of academic freedom.”

But, she said, people in the academy are getting increasingly riled up. “I’ve never seen the academic labor force more energized,” Mulvey said. “People are fighting back in their statehouse and are calling out corruption in government and business and opposing politicians who want to quash that criticism.”

Moreover, it’s not just academics who are mobilizing. Jeremy Young, director of PEN America’s Freedom to Learn program, has brought interested parties together to defend accreditation as it intersects with academic and intellectual freedom. “I am seeing far more efforts to respond to the attacks on higher education than I’ve ever seen before,” he told Truthout. “Scholarly groups, administrators, faculty and students are trying to marshal their troops and work together. People are sharing information and there’s a unity of purpose. Some very bad legislation, like Ohio’s [Senate Bill] 83, has been averted as a result.”

He further described PEN’s Champions of Higher Education as an example of their efforts. The group, composed of more than 225 former college presidents and high-level administrators, has spoken out in support of academic freedom, accrediting agencies and faculty governance.

Accreditors are also having their say.

Many accrediting agencies have signed onto letters launched by PEN to decry the right’s efforts to restrict their work. Nonetheless, Cynthia Jackson-Hammond, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Council for Higher Education Accreditation, an umbrella group for accreditors, told Truthout, “There is a great level of surprise that this is happening and a great deal of frustration and disappointment. Accreditors have always focused on making sure that institutions provide academic support for students so that they can finish their degrees and go on to graduate school or enter the workforce. These political intrusions are unprecedented.”

That said, Jackson-Hammond calls the focus on accreditation a distraction. “There are so many pressing issues facing American families and communities,” she said. “But there are no easy solutions for the issues they’re facing, so accreditation and higher education have become easy targets.”

Alexios Rosario-Moore, a visiting assistant professor at Northern Illinois University, agrees, but nonetheless wonders about the right’s actual agenda. “Is the right interested in harming people of color, feminists, progressives and the LGBTQIA+ community, or are they simply trying to control the educational agenda through demagoguery?” he asks.

After posing the question, Rosario-Moore takes a minute and continues: “It seems as though the fascists and radical Libertarians understand the ideological role a university can play in society, and they are seeking to take over and put their ideology forward.” Controlling accreditation is one avenue toward this end, he said.

Indeed. The right seems acutely aware that, as late Cherokee Chief Wilma Mankiller said, “Whoever controls the education of our children, controls our future.” Although they’re likely not crediting these words to their author, DeSantis, Rufo, Trump, and their allies have clearly come to the same conclusion. It’s up to us — whether we’re working inside or outside of the academy — to stop them.

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