Regional Accreditation Standards Concerning Academic Freedom and the Faculty Role in Governance

Although faculty should become familiar with the full scope of regional accrediting standards, no issues are more central to AAUP concerns than academic freedom and shared governance. What follows is a compilation of the principal standards currently employed by each of the seven regional accrediting commissions that relate to the faculty role in governance and to academic freedom.

Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools, Middle States Commission on Higher Education

The Middle States commission, which employs fourteen standards for accreditation, includes the following paragraph on shared governance within its general statement on governance under standard 4, “Leadership and Governance”:

The Commission on Higher Education expects a climate of shared collegial governance in which all constituencies (such as faculty, administration, staff, students, and governing board members, as determined by each institution) involved in carrying out the institution’s mission and goals participate in the governance function in a manner appropriate to that institution. Institutions should seek to create a governance environment in which issues concerning mission, vision, program planning, resource allocation and others, as appropriate, can be discussed openly by those who are responsible for each activity. Within any system of shared governance, each major constituency must carry out its separate but complementary roles and responsibilities. Each must contribute to an appropriate degree so that decision-makers and goal-setters consider information from all relevant constituencies. While reflecting institutional mission, perspective, and culture, collegial governance structures should acknowledge also the need for timely decisionmaking.1

Standard 10, “Faculty,” states that “the institution’s instructional, research, and service programs are devised, developed, monitored, and supported by qualified professionals.” Those “qualified professionals” are the members of the faculty, who “bear primary responsibility for promoting, facilitating, assuring, and evaluating student learning. The faculty and other qualified professionals are responsible for devising and developing an institution’s academic, professional, research, and service programs within the framework of its educational mission and goals.” As a consequence of this “primary responsibility,”

faculty participation in institutional planning, curriculum review, and other governance roles can be an appropriate recognition of their professional competence and commitment, where consistent with institutional governance structures. Such participation should complement the faculty’s primary responsibilities for teaching, research, and scholarship.2

Within its discussion of standard 6, “Integrity,” the Middle States commission also recognizes the foundational importance of academic freedom and describes it in a manner that is consistent with AAUP standards:

Academic freedom, intellectual freedom, and freedom of expression are central to the academic enterprise. These special privileges, characteristic of the academic environment, should be extended to all members of the institution’s community (i.e., full-time faculty, adjunct, visiting or parttime faculty, staff, students instructed on the campus, and those students associated with the institution via distance learning programs).

Academic and intellectual freedom gives one the right and obligation as a scholar to examine data and to question assumptions. It also obliges instructors to present all information objectively because it asserts the student’s right to know all pertinent facts and information. A particular point of view may be advanced, based upon complete access to the facts or opinions that underlie the argument, as long as the right to further inquiry and consideration remains unabridged.

To restrict the availability or to limit unreasonably the presentation of data or opinions is to deny academic freedom. The effective institution addresses diversity of opinion with openness and balance.

Intellectual freedom does not rule out commitment; rather it makes it possible. Freedom does not require neutrality on the part of individuals or educational institutions, or toward the value systems that may guide them. Institutions may hold particular political, social, or religious philosophies, as may individual faculty members or students; but both individuals and institutions should remain intellectually free and allow others the same freedom to pursue truth.3

In the section that follows, “Fundamental Elements of Integrity,” the commission identifies various characteristics that indicate standard 6 is being met. Among them is “a climate of academic inquiry and engagement supported by widely disseminated policies regarding academic and intellectual freedom.” Similarly, an accredited institution’s “adherence to principles of academic freedom, within the context of institutional mission,” is listed among the supporting characteristics for standard 10, “Faculty.”4

New England Association of Schools and Colleges, Commission on Institutions of Higher Education

This commission employs eleven standards. The principal references to the faculty role in governance are found under standard 3, “Organization and Governance.” The rather extensive elaboration of that standard (eleven paragraphs) contains several statements referring to shared governance and to the faculty’s primary responsibility for academic matters:

  • “The institution’s system of governance involves the participation of all appropriate constituencies and includes regular communication among them.” (3.1)
  •  “In accordance with established institutional mechanisms and procedures, the chief executive officer and the administration consult with faculty, students, other administrators, and staff, and are appropriately responsive to their concerns, needs, and initiatives.” (3.7) 
  •  “Faculty exercise an important role in assuring the academic integrity of the institution’s educational programs. Faculty have a substantive voice in matters of educational programs, faculty personnel, and other aspects of institutional policy that relate to their areas of responsibility and expertise.” (3.10)5

A similar statement regarding the faculty’s role in governance is included in standard 5 (“Faculty”), though diluted by “may” in the second independent clause:

Responsibilities of teaching faculty include instruction and the systematic understanding of effective teaching/learning processes and outcomes in courses and programs for which they share responsibility; additional duties may include such functions as student advisement, academic planning, and participation in policymaking, course and curricular development, research, and institutional governance. (5.3)6

In regard to academic freedom, New England includes the following language in standard 5:

  • “The institution protects and fosters academic freedom of all faculty regardless of rank or term of appointment.” (5.13)
  • "Scholarship, research, and creative activities receive encouragement and support appropriate to the institution’s purposes and objectives. Faculty and students are accorded academic freedom in these activities.” (5.21)

And standard 11, “Integrity,” contains another unambiguous statement on academic freedom: “The institution is committed to the free pursuit and dissemination of knowledge. It assures faculty and students the freedom to teach and study a given field, to examine all pertinent data, to question assumptions, and to be guided by the evidence of scholarly research” (11.3).7

North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, the Higher Learning Commission

The current version of this commission’s Handbook of Accreditation includes shared governance under the first of its five “Criteria for Accreditation,” specifically, under core component 1d, which states that “the organization’s governance and administrative structures promote effective leadership and support collaborative processes that enable the organization to fulfill its mission.” The explanatory paragraphs that follow describe shared governance (without defining it) as “a long-standing attribute of most colleges and universities in the United States,” adding the qualification, “whatever the governance and administrative structures, they need to enhance the organization’s capacity to fulfill its mission.” Among the “examples of evidence” that might indicate compliance with this core component is this: “Faculty and other academic leaders share responsibility for the coherence of the curriculum and the integrity of academic processes.” Under criterion 2a (“The organization realistically prepares for a future shaped by multiple societal and economic trends”) explanatory paragraphs describe shared governance as serving “as a check and balance to ensure academic integrity.”8
While the North Central commission’s handbook does not employ the phrase “academic freedom” under criterion 4a (“The organization demonstrates, through the actions of its board, administrators, students, faculty, and staff, that it values a life of learning”), it does include the following “example of evidence” relevant to this bedrock concept: “The board has approved and disseminated statements supporting freedom of inquiry for the organization’s students, faculty, and staff, and honors those statements in its practices.”9

The North Central Association offers an alternative accreditation process, the Academic Quality Improvement Program, which emphasizes continuous self-assessment rather than periodic reviews and employs a different set of criteria. In order to determine whether or not criterion 1 (“Helping Students Learn”) is being met, institutions can ask a number of questions, one of which is the following: “By what means do you create and maintain a climate that celebrates intellectual freedom, inquiry, reflection, respect for intellectual property, and respect for differing and diverse opinions?”10

Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities

The accrediting handbook of the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities includes some of the strongest affirmations of the faculty’s role in shared governance. Among its twenty eligibility requirements for institutions seeking initial accreditation (which also apply to institutions seeking reaccreditation), the commission includes this statement under requirement 7, “Faculty”: “Faculty are involved in the formulation of institutional policy[;] . . . participate in academic planning, curriculum development and review, student academic advising, [and] institutional governance[;] and are evaluated in a periodic and systematic manner.”11

Among its nine standards for accreditation are several that contain similar language. A subsection of standard 4, “Faculty,” asserts that “faculty participate in academic planning, curriculum development and review, academic advising, and institutional governance” (4.A.2). Standard 6, “Governance and Administration,” includes this statement: “The system of governance makes provision for the consideration of faculty, student, and staff views and judgments in those matters in which these constituencies have a direct and reasonable interest” (6.A.3). This section also includes the following assertion: “The role of faculty in institutional governance, planning, budgeting and policy development is made clear and public; faculty are supported in that role” (6.D).12

The Northwest commission also includes strong affirmations of academic freedom among its requirements and standards. One eligibility requirement is entitled “Academic Freedom” and states, “The institution’s faculty and students are free to examine and test all knowledge appropriate to their discipline or area of major study as judged by the academic/educational community in general. Regardless of institutional affiliation or sponsorship, the institution maintains an atmosphere in which intellectual freedom and independence exist.”13

The standards contain similar statements:

  • “The institution fosters and protects academic freedom for faculty.” (4.A.7)
  •  “Faculty are accorded academic freedom to pursue scholarship, research, and artistic creation consistent with the institution’s mission and goals.” (4.B.7)
  •  “The institution demonstrates, through its policies and practices, its commitment to the free pursuit and dissemination of knowledge consistent with the institution’s mission and goals.” (9.A.5)14

They also contain one of most elaborate discussions of academic freedom to be found among the standards of all the regional accrediting bodies. First adopted in 1966 and revised in 1978, this lengthy statement makes up the greater part of standard 9, “Institutional Integrity,” and should be quoted in its entirety:

By academic tradition and by philosophical principle, an institution of higher learning is committed to the pursuit of truth and to its communication to others.

To carry out this essential commitment calls for institutional integrity in the way a college or university manages its affairs which can be seen in the way it specifies its goals, selects and retains its faculty, admits students, establishes curricula, determines programs of research, and fixes its fields of service. The maintenance and exercise of such institutional integrity postulates and requires appropriate autonomy and freedom.
Put positively, this is the freedom to examine data, to question assumptions, to be guided by evidence, to teach what one knows—to be a learner and a scholar. Put negatively, this is a freedom from unwarranted harassment which hinders or prevents a college or university from getting on with its essential work.

A college or university must be managed well and remain solvent, but it is not a business or an industry. It must be concerned with the needs of its community and state and country, but an institution of higher learning is not a political party or a social service. It must be morally responsible, but, even when church-related, it is not a religion or a church.
A college or university is an institution of higher learning. Those within it have, as a first concern, evidence and truth rather than particular judgments of institutional benefactors, concerns of churchmen, public opinion, social pressure, or political proscription.

Relating to this general concern corresponding to intellectual and academic freedom are correlative responsibilities. On the part of trustees and administrators, there is the obligation to protect faculty and students from inappropriate pressures or destructive harassments.

On the part of the faculty, there is the obligation to distinguish personal conviction from proven conclusions and to present relevant data fairly to students because this same freedom asserts their right to know the facts.

On the part of students, there is the obligation to sift and to question, to be actively involved in the life of the institution, but involved as learners at appropriate levels. The determination and exercise of proper responsibilities will be related to the students’ status as undergraduate, professional, or graduate students.

Intellectual freedom does not rule out commitment; rather it makes it possible and personal. Freedom does not require neutrality on the part of the individual or the educational institution—certainly not toward the task of inquiry and learning, nor toward the value systems which may guide them as persons or as schools.

Hence, institutions may hold to a particular, social, or religious philosophy, as may individual faculty members or students. But to be true to what they profess academically, individuals and institutions must remain intellectually free and allow others the same freedom to pursue truth and to distinguish the pursuit of it from a commitment to it.

All concerned with the good of colleges and universities will seek ways to support their institutional integrity and the exercise of their appropriate autonomy and freedom. In particular, the regional commissions, which have a particular responsibility to look at an institution in its totality, will always give serious attention to this aspect and quality of institutional life so necessary for its well-being and vitality.15

Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, Commission on Colleges

Of fifty-five terse “comprehensive standards,” the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools includes three pertaining to academic freedom and governance. In reference to the faculty role in governance, standard 3.7.5 states that “the institution publishes policies on the responsibility and authority of faculty in academic and governance matters.” Shedding some light on what that authority and responsibility might be, standard 3.4.12 specifies that “the institution places primary responsibility for the content, quality, and effectiveness of its curriculum with its faculty.” The single standard on academic freedom (3.7.4) states, “The institution ensures adequate procedures for safeguarding and protecting academic freedom.”16

Western Association of Schools and Colleges, Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges

This commission applies four major standards in its accreditation reviews. It addresses governance in standard IV, “Leadership and Governance.” The subsection on “decision-making roles and processes” states that “the institution establishes and implements a written policy providing for faculty, staff, administrator, and student participation in decision-making processes” (IV.A.2). Roles in governance are apportioned according to “responsibility and expertise”: “Faculty and administrators have a substantive and clearly defined role in institutional governance and exercise a substantial voice in institutional policies, planning, and budget that relate to their areas of responsibility and expertise” (IV.A.2.a). In the succeeding paragraph, responsibility for curricular matters is assigned to various faculty bodies as well as to “academic administrators”: “The institution relies on faculty, its academic senate or other appropriate faculty structures, the curriculum committee, and academic administrators for recommendations about student learning programs and services.”17

The commission’s four standards contain two references to academic freedom, both under standard II, “Student Learning Programs and Services.” The first (II.A.7) reads,

In order to assure the academic integrity of the teaching-learning process, the institution uses and makes public governing board–adopted policies on academic freedom and responsibility, student academic honesty, and specific institutional beliefs or world views. These policies make clear the institution’s commitment to the free pursuit and dissemination of knowledge.

The second (II.B.2.a) specifies that the catalog contain an academic freedom statement.18

Western Association of Schools and Colleges, Accrediting Commission for Senior Colleges and Universities

This commission employs four major standards—each amplified with specific criteria, examples, and clarifying questions—and addresses governance under standard 3, “Developing and Applying Resources and Organizational Structures to Ensure Sustainability.” The eleventh criterion of standard 3 states that “the institution’s faculty exercises effective academic leadership and acts consistently to ensure both academic quality and the appropriate maintenance of the institution’s educational purposes and character.” To aid in ascertaining whether this criterion is being met, the accreditation handbook provides two “Questions for Institutional Engagement”:

  • “How does the institution encourage and support the active exercise of leadership and responsibility at all levels—including supporting faculty to discharge their distinctive leadership roles?”
  •  “How does the institution interpret and put into practice shared governance through appropriate faculty participation in planning and decisionmaking in pursuit of the institution’s purpose and character?”19

The Western senior commission treats academic freedom under standard 1, “Defining Institutional Purposes and Ensuring Educational Objectives,” criterion 1.4 of which reads, “The institution publicly states its commitment to academic freedom for faculty, staff, and students, and acts accordingly. This commitment affirms that those in the academy are free to share their convictions and responsible conclusions with their colleagues and students in their teaching and in their writing.” Two sets of guidelines provide specific examples of how an institution might comply with this criterion:

  • “The institution has published or has readily available policies on academic freedom. For those institutions that strive to instill specific beliefs and world views, policies clearly state conditions, and ensure these conditions are consistent with academic freedom. Due process procedures are disseminated, demonstrating that faculty and students are protected in their quest for truth.” 
  •  “The institution has no history of interference in substantive decisions or educational functions by political, religious, corporate, or other external bodies outside the institution’s own governance arrangements.”20 


1. Middle States Commission on Higher Education, Characteristics of Excellence in Higher Education, 2006, 12.  Back to text

2. Ibid., 37. Back to text

3. Ibid., 21–22. Back to text

4. Ibid., 23, 38. Back to text

5. Commission on Institutions of Higher Education, New England Association of Schools and Colleges, Standards for Accreditation, 2005, 5–6. Back to text

6. Ibid., 14. Back to text

7. Ibid., 15–16, 27. Back to text

8. The Higher Learning Commission, A Commission of the North Central Association, Handbook of Accreditation, 3rd ed., 2003,3.2-4, 3.2-6. Back to text

9. Ibid., 3.2-13. Back to text

10. Ibid., 6.4-2. Back to text

11. Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, Accreditation Handbook, 2003. Back to text

12. Ibid., 63, 72, 74. Back to text

13. Ibid., 7. Back to text

14. Ibid., 63, 64, 96. Back to text

15. Ibid., 96–97. Back to text

16. Southern Association of Schools and Colleges, Commission on Colleges, Resource Manual for Principles of Accreditation: Foundations for Quality Enhancement, 2005, 57, 46, 57.Back to text

17. Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges, Western Association of Schools and Colleges, Accreditation Reference Handbook, 2007, 31–32. Back to text

18. Ibid., 21, 22. Back to text

19. Accrediting Commission for Senior Colleges and Universities, Western Association of Schools and Colleges, Handbook of Accreditation, 2001, 27–28. Back to text

20. Ibid., 18. Back to text