Ignore Us At Your Peril!": The San Francisco Accreditation Hearing
"Ignore us at your peril!" Those were the closing words of Los Angeles Valley Senate President Leaon Marzillier during testimony at the Accrediting Commission's hearing on Draft A of the proposed new accreditation standards. The hearing, held on Sunday, January 6th in San Francisco, was the only one to be scheduled in the continental United States.
Besides Marzillier, faculty members testifying were Academic Senate President Hoke Simpson, Past President Linda Collins, Treasurer Ian Walton, and Representative-at-Large Scott Lukas, all from the Academic Senate Executive Committee, and Senate President Ophelia Clark, and Vice President Susan Lopez, both from City College of San Francisco. Also testifying were Jim Perley, representing the American Association of University Professors, and Regina Stanback-Stroud, Past President of the Academic Senate and currently vice President for Instruction at Skyline College.
All of the participants were in communication with one another prior to the hearing, with the result that the overlap in testimony was minimal. It will surprise no one who attended the Fall Plenary Session, or who has read the resolutions generated there, that those assembled to provide testimony came to persuade the Commission to abandon their misguided emphasis on quantifiable outcomes, and to focus instead on educational quality.
Scott Lukas led off the testimony by calling for an extension of the Commission's timeline for adoption of a new set of standards. Lukas called for delay in order "to allow for more dialogue [on standards], for additional hearings to be scheduled, for more time to allow for further written comments to be submitted, and for the commission to adequately share its research with the public." "As a social scientist and researcher," Lukas said, "I can attest to the desirability of sharing one's background materials with their presentation of completed work. Particularly in this case where the adopted standards will impact so many instructions, we feel that it is absolutely necessary that the commission share all background material and data with the public."
Ian Walton testified to his experience as a member of a visiting accreditation team and as standard chair for Governance and Administration during his own college's recent self-study and visitation. "During both of these processes," Walton said, "I observed that for most colleges the current ten-standard process is still a very new experience. It includes two standards (3 and 4) that closely resemble your proposed revisions and their heavy emphasis on so-called quantifiable outcomes. But most colleges have had extreme difficulty meeting those standards or have failed them. And you have no evidence that the very few colleges who have succeeded in meeting those standards are in fact providing a superior education to students as a result.And yet," Walton continued, "you want to involve us all in a giant leap of faith by making your entire process similar to these two unproven standards. To my logical mathematician's mind that seems close to lunacy. If I were a CEO I think I would be terrified. Why not practice what you preach-and collect some data first, before you leap."
Next to testify was Jim Perley. Perley, as a past president of the AAUP and past chair of its Committee on Accreditation, had also challenged the standards as a panel member at the Fall Academic Senate Plenary Session. Perley and AAUP are sufficiently concerned over the Commission's direction that he made the trip from Decatur, Illinois, where he is currently Dean of Arts and Sciences at Millikin University, specifically to testify. Perley said that his concerns centered on academic freedom and shared governance, "areas which have historically been thought to be indicators of quality in higher education. The emphasis on `outcomes,'" he said, "rather than process in the new proposed standards is a threat to the exercise of academic freedom which allows excellence to emerge." In his concluding remarks, Perley said that "If new standards for accreditation lead to a perception of the elimination from consideration of structures that have assured.quality, then I, for one, will lobby for a new and different mechanism and structure for achieving accreditation that will insure the maintenance of..high standards of quality."
Linda Collins presented the Commission with a synopsis of the earlier written commentary on the proposed standards. Collins cited the Commission's claim that it has reduced the number of standards to avoid redundancy. "However, upon closer examination, it is noteworthy that the proposed draft is actually quite redundant," she said. "Essentially there is but one overarching standard, repeated over and over again. What is required above all is a `systematic cycle of evaluation, integrated planning, implementation and re-evaluation to verify effectiveness.' This `standard' is then expected to be applied across the institution, be it in instruction or student services, administrative processes or governance." Draft A, she said, "completes a retreat from historically understood approaches to standards in two ways. First, the Commission moves away from prior expectations that baseline standards of resources and quality will apply to various areas of the college. However, requiring that colleges meet increasing expectations for productive outcomes without regard for the resources colleges use or need to attain these outcomes creates systemic pressure to cut corners. Second," Collins continued, "the draft avoids any real commitment to or discussion of the levels of achievement expected of students or the educational rigor and integrity of the offerings. It is quite possible to imagine institutions with `systematic cycles' of evaluation and planning used to enhance `outcomes' whose offerings are not educationally sound and whose transcripts will not be honored by transfer institutions. In fact, to compel attention to outcomes while removing the underpinning of expected standards in both of the senses is a prescription for disaster in higher education. Focus on quantifiable outcomes without the checks and balances afforded by attention to baseline standards of quality and rigor creates premium conditions for accreditation of and institutional pressures toward diploma mills."
Ophelia Clark, from City College of San Francisco, was also critical of the Commission's lack of attention to essential "inputs," and of its apparent unwillingness to spend time listening to faculty. Her colleague, Susan Lopez, said that "There should be more emphasis on what is known as `value added." The student enrolls already possessing (or lacking) certain skills and motivation. How is the student transformed by the process? And what is the process, what is the institution contributing to the equation? Just looking at outcomes is not sufficient," Lopez said, "You have to look at the student's starting place, the process and the ending place." Lopez went on to observe that "The standards should speak clearly and eloquently to the reader, but as written, they fail to convey any sense that education is a noble enterprise on the part of the learner and of the educator-on the contrary, the pursuit of knowledge is made to sound completely mundane."
Hoke Simpson told Commissioners that they should not be surprised that "I am here to make a case for writing the academic senates back into the accreditation standards." The argument, he said that the standards are necessarily vague about governance because all of the institutions accredited by the commission do not have the same statutory and regulatory requirements as the California Community Colleges, is a weak one. Citing examples of local academic senates' protection of academic quality on their campuses, Simpson said that all colleges would clearly benefit from the requirement that they have a faculty organization entrusted with decisions about curriculum and program quality. Simpson was also critical of the Commission's emphasis on outcomes. Arguing that the principal outcomes of a higher education are the largely intangible changes wrought over the courses of an entire lifetime, he said that the best way to tell if a college contributes to producing these positive lifelong results was to look at how it made its decistions-that is, at its governance. "For it is here," he said, "in the ways that people deal with one another, that an institution will model-or fail to model-those traits of personal character that it hopes to effect in its students, and those social and political processes that it hopes see sustained in the larger society."
Leon Marzillier told the Commission that his academic senate at Los Angeles Valley College was sufficiently concerned by the new standards to pay his way to San Francisco to testify. One focus of their concern, he said, was the language of proposed Standard III concerning faculty evaluation: Evaluation of faculty also includes effectiveness in producing stated student learning outcomes. "Depending upon who establishes these so-called `learning outcomes,'" Marzillier observed, "this could have the exact opposite effect stated at the beginning of Draft A as being the purpose of the commission: `To assure quality' and `To promote the ongoing pursuit of excellence.' Instead, the above-proposed language is liable to create institutional pressures toward reduction of rigor, grade inflation, and lowered academic standards." Should the Commission fail to abandon its current course, said Marzillier, "I for one will be joining those at the senate's Fall Session expressing the opinion that as a system, we should simply find another, more responsive body, under which to be accredited. With all due respect," he concluded, "ignore us at your peril!"
Regina Stanback-Stroud told the Commission, "I have to inform you that the standards are bankrupt. There is absolutely no expectation that institutions make any type of resource, service or scholarship commitment that is generally recognized to insure some measure of academic and educational quality." The abandonment of such expectations, she said, and the shift to an exclusive reliance on outcomes as a measure of quality "is occurring at precisely the time when people who classify themselves as white are no longer in the majority.Now," she said, "the means of certifying quality shifts from the commitment of the institutions to the exclusive performance of the now very diverse student population." Stanback-Stroud continued, "The over reliance on the value based rhetoric of accountability and taxpayers' interest is flawed in that it presumes that the taxpayers who demand accountability are somehow different than the students who attend the community colleges. The community college student as a whole works more than 40 hours per week and pays payroll and income taxes. They live in the community and pay sales taxes. Yes, these taxpayers do demand accountability. They demand to know that when they need to see a counselor they can, that there will be a core of full time faculty to serve them, that the facilities will be decent and suitable for their educational experiences, that the college will have instructional resources to support their learning experience and that the college is stable enough that is will be there by the time they complete their educational goals."
The commission thanked the participants for their testimony. There were no questions.
In summing up the day's testimony, the AAUP's Jim Perley said that is was "Brutal, but effective!"
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