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Senate, President oppose regional accrediting agency
STANFORD -- Should an accrediting agency have authority to regulate diversity, as well as faculty hiring and promotion standards, when evaluating colleges and universities?
No, was the emphatic answer from Stanford University President Gerhard Casper and members of the Faculty Senate.
They went on record Thursday, Feb. 3, as unanimously opposing efforts by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC), the regional body responsible for accrediting Stanford and other western institutions, to impose standards that Casper, in an impassioned speech to the senate, labeled an "intrusion" and "expansionist policies."
After a long discussion and much parliamentary maneuvering to make the strongest possible statement, the senate unanimously adopted a resolution asking the Western Association to withdraw its statement on diversity. It then unanimously endorsed a statement by Casper (see accompanying text).
The issue, Casper and the senate agreed, was less the substance of the Western Association's proposals than what the president called the agency's attempt to extend its authority "well beyond the traditional role of accreditation, which is to insure that institutions meet minimum standards of education and resources."
Casper cited part of the Western Association proposals, scheduled to be voted on by the agency's commissioners Feb. 23, that seek to clarify and expand diversity as a major measure of academic quality.
"I generally agree with the commissioners' intention to promote diversity," Casper said. "Stanford has been a leader in this effort."
However, he said, the Western Association is "seeking to become the arbiter of social and educational standards on every campus it accredits."
"Even where an institutional commitment to diversity is clear, issues that arise as a result are among the most difficult and sensitive of any faced by faculty and administrators," Casper said. "Well-meaning people may disagree on the best approaches to these issues, but they are best left as matters of internal governance and policy. No institution should be required to demonstrate its commitment to diversity to the satisfaction of an external review panel. The commission is attempting to insert itself in an area in which it has no legitimate standing."
The president also cited another Western Association recommendation: "A clear expectation of the accrediting process should be that teaching effectiveness is as important as any other factor in hiring and promoting faculty who are expected to teach."
"Thus WASC," Casper said, "seeks to impose itself in the selection and promotion of faculty. Even though I am second to none in believing that teaching quality should be an important factor in hiring and promoting, I will do everything possible to resist this kind of intrusion on the part of an outside agency."
That proposal, and another calling for institutions to demonstrate positive outcomes for students, are an attempt by the Western Association to inject itself "in academic programs and governance, and in particular to gain influence in large institutions where traditional accreditation is not an issue," he said.
In the discussion that followed, Casper expanded on his fears about the agency's interest in student outcomes, saying it was "the most amazing of all amazing steps taken by them because it seems as if decades of difficulties in measuring outcome in educational processes have passed by this organization of colleges and universities altogether."
He told the senate that it is difficult to determine exactly what people should get out of Stanford. "Of course various people get different things out of Stanford because they want different things from Stanford," he said.
"If something pushed me over the brink . . . it was this last point," Casper said in frustration.
Earlier, after suggesting that Stanford's relationship with WASC need not remain the same, Casper closed his statement by saying, "Too much is too much!"
During a highly critical, lengthy senate discussion about the agency and its proposed new accrediting standards, Robert Simoni, chair of biological sciences, suggested that Stanford consider withdrawing from the agency.
For students to qualify for federal loans, the university must maintain membership in an accrediting agency, Casper responded. The governing body for the Western Association's accrediting activities is indirectly elected and its decisions are not subject to membership ratification.
The university has no choice except to "try to assure that WASC concentrates on what it was invented for," he said.
Robert Noll, economics, suggested that Stanford work with other top California institutions to replace the Western Association with a more reasonable accreditation process, perhaps through the Association of American Universities.
Casper responded that he is willing to explore alternatives with other institutions.
New federal regulations are transferring some accrediting functions to state agencies, he said in his prepared remarks. "While I would normally oppose more government oversight," Casper said, "in this case the state may do a better job than WASC has done recently."
The six regional accrediting agencies are trying to stop serving as compliance monitors for the federal government and have proposed a national accreditation system, he said.
Efforts are under way in California and nationally to establish alternative accrediting agencies, he said.
"We will follow each of these developments closely while we also work to oppose WASC's expansionist policies," Casper said.
Responding to a question from Sylvia Yanigasako, anthropology, about a self-study at Stanford three years ago that was part of the university's last accreditation, Simoni said he took part and it was "an enormous effort."
Noll said the report filled "two wheelbarrows."
The Western Association proposes to make future documents public, Casper said. Thus, any self-criticism in the report "could be used against you."
Derek Miyahara, the Faculty Senate's graduate student observer, said he wrote part of the self-study three years ago and would have left out some critical statements if he thought they would be made public.
Rebholz: Agency caught in contradiction
Ron Rebholz, chair of English, complimented Casper on his formal statement and expressed total agreement with it.
Rebholz brought the issue to the senate after he discovered the agency was developing language that would allow religious schools to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.
He quoted from the agency's 1988 broad diversity statement, then said the proposed new version "seems to be an attempt on the part of WASC to distance itself from the whole issue of sexual orientation while reminding religious institutions that they have the right to discriminate and indeed to fire people on the basis of prohibited sexual behavior, but that they must not do so with any expression of animosity or disrespect." Laughter followed.
The latest proposed language, which is being circulated for comment by member institutions, states that "religious institutions have the right to select students and faculty on the basis of adherence to religious beliefs."
It also states that "whatever an institution's prohibitions may be regarding the behavior of its members, these must not be accompanied by institutional actions that express animosity or disrespect for persons for reasons of race, ethnicity, socio-economic class, gender, age, religious belief, sexual orientation or disability."
Casper said that the statement "undoubtedly remains unsatisfactory to many gays and lesbians. I am sympathetic to their concerns."
The statement illustrates, he said, "the problems inherent in trying to regulate broad areas of human interaction, and in trying to decide which groups should be included or excluded from a general policy."
Rebholz said that the agency is caught in a contradiction. On the one hand, religious institutions are told they can select students and faculty on the basis of religious beliefs.
On the other hand, the organization's draft diversity statement expresses the importance of "immersion in an environment of diverse and competing ideas," he said, quoting from the draft statement. It also talks about the "free pursuit of knowledge and expression of ideas . . . not to be undermined by particular judgments of . . . religious or political groups."
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