Faculty Forum: Accreditation Fatigue

By Benjamin Baez

I have accreditation fatigue. My university and the college of education in which I teach are preparing for reviews by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, the Florida Department of Education, and the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education.

Accreditation processes, in the name of assessment and accountability, wind up reducing what is, in my opinion, inherently unmeasurable— teaching and learning—to things that can be put into a language of accounting, a language that lends itself to neat little matrices. This accounting then comes to represent what we do, who we are, and how we are to be judged.

But what most fatigues me is not this reductionism, which I was prepared to deal with, thinking that perhaps by learning the language of accreditation I could more effectively argue for increasing the number of faculty in the college. What gives me fatigue is that I have come to learn that I am surrounded by faculty members who do not seem to understand core academic values such as academic freedom, professional autonomy, and shared governance.

Many faculty members seem to have never learned of the importance of these values to their profession. In fact, claims about academic freedom and shared governance seem to some like “noise.” When I complain at meetings, for example, that accreditation reviews seem to be dictating to me how I should teach my classes, assess my students, develop my syllabi, and so on, and that these decisions are essential to the academic profession, my colleagues see me as an unruly child. They consistently tell me that no one is forcing anyone to do anything and, more patronizingly, that I need to understand that “if we do not get accredited we are going to have to close our college.” Not all my colleagues say this or look as if they want to say this to me, of course, but a good number of them do. And others come to support my arguments only after I explain to them what I mean by academic freedom—they had not thought before of what academic freedom means.

Our profession—and the AAUP should bear some responsibility here—needs to give serious consideration to its future, for cadres of faculty members are now being created who have no serious commitment to the ideals of academic freedom and shared governance. Too many of these faculty members adhere blindly to administrative fiats, not because they are afraid or because they are conservative but because they do not understand the distinction between our professional academic values and the administrative imperatives of the university, for the administration is the university.

When these faculty members hear the term “academic freedom,” I think, they imagine a personal rather than a professional interest. They view academic freedom as a concept that can be easily turned to selfish ends by a particular person who does whatever he or she wants, regardless of the harm to students or the institution that might result. When they hear “shared governance,” they envision a faculty representative on a university committee, someone who is burdened with service that distracts from research or teaching, or they imagine that being allowed to participate on committees is a gift from the administration, which can do what it wants, anyway. There is no sense that academic freedom and shared governance are professional imperatives and that without them our profession loses its focus.

This critique is not directed at individuals but at the profession itself. For those of us who advocate for academic values are no longer doing a good job of socializing academics to think of themselves as academics (again, the AAUP bears responsibility here). Perhaps the language of accounting is to blame; perhaps we have been beaten down and just want to survive; perhaps we may even need to rethink our professional values, to recast them in light of the sociopolitical contexts in which we now find ourselves. But we must ask ourselves how we are to defend academic freedom and shared governance when many faculty members—the very people associated with these ideas—have no clear understanding of what they are or, worse, why they are important. On whose behalf does the AAUP speak when it speaks of academics and of academic freedom?

Benjamin Baez is associate professor of education at Florida International University. Academe accepts submissions to this column. See our guidelines. The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the policies of the AAUP.

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