Monday, April 28, 2008

Where Are the Accrediting Agencies When We Need Them?

By Richard Vedder

Diploma mills are operations that give diplomas or certificates to persons for work not performed. We have accrediting agencies that keep them from becoming consequential in size and importance.

But when universities that tie diplomas to performance violate that standard and develop attributes of diploma mills, do the accrediting agencies do anything? Are the universities only accountable to themselves?

I am reminded this in the case of West Virginia University, which gave retroactively a diploma to the daughter of the governor. Apparently, the student had done some work earlier --but did not get a degree. Now, with a governor who has influence over WVU's funding in power, the degree was granted. A scandal has ensued, and the Provost is gone. Why not the President, I would ask. But more importantly, what is WVU's regional accreditor going to do? Put the school on probation? Appoint a special task force to monitor the school's awarding of degrees? My prediction: they will do little or nothing.

As a friend said to me recently, "Can you name a single instance where an established university of consequence lost accreditation because of lax academic standards?" What happens when major irregularities occur? Nothing, as far as I can tell.

A few other examples. A small two year college near where I live recently admitted giving diplomas to some businessmen/volunteers who participated in some workshops and training programs at the school. One of the volunteers thought it was outrageous to be given a diploma certifying that he had completed a core curriculum when, in fact, he had not. What has happened? Nothing. The Ohio Board of Regents allegedly is investigating, but again, nothing probably will happen. It was revealed that the president of Southern Illinois University plagiarized significantly in his dissertation --what happened to him? Nothing. Did the North Central Association do anything? If so, I have not heard of it.

Contrast this to the NCAA. If there are violations of established standards, the investigation is real, and the punishment is likewise often severe and painful. In higher education we seem to be saying, "On important matters, like intercollegiate sports, we have rigorous standards and enforce a strong code a ethical behavior. On lesser matters, such as the awarding of degrees and the certification of levels of knowledge or skills, we kind of let things slide."

All of this reduces public confidence in universities, and rightfully so.

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