It's Time to Require Liberal Arts Accreditation
Why We Can No Longer Ignore "General Education"
By Milton Greenberg

From the April 2002 AAHE Bulletin

 


The liberal arts community has lost control over the definition of higher learning. Sharp disagreements over the canon within traditional liberal arts disciplines and periodic warfare over the meaning of “general education” characterize contemporary higher education. The situation is widely lamented and leaves us all wondering: “What does it mean to be a college graduate?”

All degree programs, irrespective of major, presume a good grounding in liberal arts, including composition and literature, mathematics, physical and biological studies, arts and humanities, and social sciences.

Unlike professional programs, however, the major liberal arts disciplines have no accreditation bodies to certify and maintain standards and quality. The assumption of the academic community is that regional accreditation satisfies whatever oversight is required of liberal arts programs. That is neither feasible nor within the expertise of regional visiting teams.

Accreditors usually look at the general education program under broadly recognized standards of distribution of disciplines, but without consideration of curriculum and faculty quality. Regional accreditation is not a liberal arts quality-control exercise.

So who is or should be watching the liberal arts store? I offer the following three recommendations.

1. Establish New Accreditation Bodies

Each traditional discipline should have its own accreditation body, patterned after the numerous specialized and professional accrediting bodies.

A strategic planning document developed by a committee of the American Political Science Association (APSA) in 2000 suggested:

“Another idea that merits consideration is for the APSA to establish standards for the accreditation of undergraduate and graduate programs in political science. Professional schools and departments can make credible claims to administrators that their accreditation hinges upon certain resources (for example, faculty positions or journal subscriptions in the library), thus giving them a potent weapon in an institution’s budget competition and placing arts and sciences departments at a disadvantage.”

This brief but accurate insight merits consideration. The major consequence in institutions of specialized accreditors’ (e.g. business, law, engineering) recommendations or demands is a distortion of priorities, usually resulting in a downgrading of the liberal arts. When the specialized accreditors tell the university president and provost the news about the inadequate resource allocation to that program (I don’t recall hearing otherwise from a specialized accrediting team), those accreditors don’t want to hear that they will have to wait in line while the concerns of the liberal arts are addressed.

What I can recall after more than two decades as a chief academic officer are specialized accreditors calling for more physical facilities and equipment for their disciplines and, in almost all cases, a specified percentage of full-time faculty, higher salaries for their professional colleagues, and, oftentimes, a demand for a new building.

In my experience these demands distorted overall budgetary distributions, salary distributions, and construction plans. Did the results make the affected universities better? Perhaps, but any reflected glory appears to have been lost upon most of the departments and faculty in the colleges of arts and sciences, usually the lowest paid, confined to the most undesirable office space, and utilizing large numbers of part-time adjuncts.

Don’t think that such nuances are lost upon students and others visiting hallowed halls of liberal learning. The rise of professional and technical education, worthy in and of itself, has come at the cost of liberal education.

If each discipline had its own accrediting body it would certainly muddy already muddy waters. The fault line of this recommendation is that it is highly unlikely to work (and it was rejected by the APSA). The grim truth, despite an apparent universal agreement about the importance of a liberal arts component to a college degree, is that we cannot define the meaning of “college-educated.” The most we are likely to agree upon is that a college education presumes minimal capacity with respect to mathematics, laboratory science, foreign language skills, the humanities and social sciences, and basic skills in writing and speaking. Yet even that much is more than many colleges and universities now require.

Can you imagine the discussions within disciplines (not to mention among disciplines) regarding standards for the teaching of routine subjects such as American history or American government as an accreditation requirement? How about requiring Shakespeare for literature or permitting a non-laboratory science course to meet science requirements?

Still, as a self-defense mechanism against further inroads by increasing numbers of specialized accreditors, I would not rule out entirely the possibility of liberal arts disciplines calling for accreditation support.

2. Require General Education Standards

Each professional or specialized accrediting body that requires a basic education in liberal arts or general education as a prelude to or part of its degree programs for undergraduates should take on as its responsibility the assurance that such basic programs meet quality standards.

This is not as bizarre as it may seem. All specialized accrediting bodies of baccalaureate programs presume a general education or liberal arts foundation. It would follow that a specialized accreditation team would evaluate the quality of all programs essential to producing a well-rounded professional. The education of business leaders, for example, requires students adequately prepared in English language skills, mathematics, and social sciences.

Yet I never heard a specialized accreditor of any kind suggest that liberal arts or general education courses were either good or poor, or that faculty in those programs were admirable or otherwise. Moreover, I have never heard any specialized accreditor suggest more full-time and higher paid faculty for the English composition or mathematics classes -- classes that are vital to the education of future leaders and professionals. Indeed, I don’t recall any evaluation at all of the liberal arts departments other than on the adequacy or appropriateness of course titles.

What has happened instead is the practice of tailoring liberal arts courses to satisfy general education requirements of professional schools, such as writing for business students or special liberal arts courses for engineers, often taught in the professional schools and not in the liberal arts college. The very existence of such courses underscores the lack of agreement on basic liberal learning concepts and purposes.

The most obvious obstacle to this proposal for professional assumption of responsibility is resistance from the liberal arts departments themselves. Imagine the howl at the thought of their being evaluated by specialized accreditors. This might be resolved by including, on specialized visiting teams, two or three evaluators competent in general education or in disciplines critical to the profession (e.g. biologists or chemists for health-related professions).

This cooperative arrangement, with its potential for more liberal arts resources called for by the specialized accreditors, could form an alliance that could be formidable indeed. Suppose the engineering school proposed more faculty and improved science courses for the chemistry and physics departments!

3. Mandate Program Quality

Establish broad-based liberal arts accrediting bodies to validate the quality of undergraduate liberal arts and sciences. Specialized accreditors would make such certification a condition of professional baccalaureate accreditation.

One such accreditor of liberal arts colleges and programs within institutions that offer liberal arts undergraduate degrees now exists -- the American Academy for Liberal Education (AALE). Established in 1992 and recognized by the Department of Education as a specialized accreditor, it views its objective as determining whether students are acquiring the core skills and knowledge necessary to lay claim to the certification.

AALE offers a performance-based accreditation process. Its standards define a general education, require the continuing evaluation of student progress, emphasize demonstration of increasing proficiency in written English, and require that senior faculty teach general education as well as introductory courses within majors. Its stress is on the use of educational audits to evaluate learning outcomes reflective of the centrality of liberal education as the institutional mission. To this end its measures of student achievement include “effective reasoning, breadth and depth of learning, and the inclination to inquire,” which are defined in the standards.

AALE emerged out of a concern with the decline of liberal studies and also as a consequence of a perceived higher education flight from appropriate representation of Western and American civilization in the nation’s colleges and universities. AALE serves as one innovative model, but any group may put forth its own version of the liberal arts and offer its services as an accreditor. In the final analysis, it is up to the institution to determine which accreditation it seeks.

This proposal can work if specialized accreditors (who claim to value the liberal arts as a base for their professional programs) assert that they will accept only a bona fide accreditation of liberal arts or general education offerings by a liberal arts accreditor, and they cease reliance on regional accreditation or their own cursory examination of course offerings to validate the “college graduate” of their profession.

The downside to this solution is that it does add a major element to the accreditation game. It is safe to anticipate resistance from the individual liberal arts disciplines, each of which values its independence. The upside is that it will compel serious attention to our commitment to liberal education as the root meaning of being an educated person.

Conclusion

Each of the three recommendations grows out of my conviction that accreditation is the best -- if not the only -- vehicle we have to ensure quality as we face new expectations for higher education. The combination of increased demand for higher education, the overspecialization of disciplines, and the ubiquitousness of distance education makes urgent the assurance of integrity in the liberal arts.

We have already gone too far in refusing to face up to the meaning of a college education. The anomaly is that specialized accreditors have shown us the way by applying reasonably clear standards and rigorous demands upon their professional schools and programs. If there is a crisis in higher education, it is in our failure to define and establish standards for the liberal arts component of a college degree. The future for overall quality control may well lie in the wedding of liberal arts and specialized accreditation.


Milton Greenberg is professor emeritus of government at American University in Washington, DC, where he served as provost and interim president. He formerly served as dean of liberal arts at Illinois State University and vice- president for academic affairs at Roosevelt University. Contact him at mgreenb@american.edu.



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