Thursday, April 21, 2016

Peer Review Under Fire?

The critics like to call it “the fox guarding the henhouse” while we in the accreditation business like to call it “peer review.” It is a long-standing cornerstone of our accreditation system that has always been a “given.” But it has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years.

The news earlier this week of the “sudden departure” of Albert Gray, the leader of ACICS, cannot have come as a surprise to anyone who has been following developments in higher education. ACICS – the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools – is the institutional accreditor that oversaw so many of the troubled for-profits, most notably, the 91 campuses of the now defunct Corinthian Colleges, Inc.

In a grilling by Senator Elizabeth Warren (D, MA) last summer, Dr. Gray tried to defend the lack of action on the part of ACICS even as complaints, charges of fraud and investigations into Corinthian were mounting. He noted that the accreditor could do little in the face of unproven allegations. I felt some sympathy for him because we often face that challenge of balancing due process for our programs with our duty to protect students.

Nonetheless, earlier this month a letter went to the US Department of Education from a dozen state attorneys general calling on the Department to revoke its recognition of ACICS, a move that would cut off access to federal funding for thousands of students in hundreds of institutions accredited by the embattled agency.

In that letter, the state attorneys general focused, among other things, on the composition of ACICS’ board and committees, saying that its leadership raised “serious questions about potential conflicts of interests and therefore ACICS’ ability to impartially evaluate those and other schools.” In a recent report by Pro Publica, it was noted that “at least two-thirds of ACICS’ commissioners since 2010 have worked as executives at for-profit colleges while sitting on the council. And at least one-third of the commissioners came from colleges that faced heightened scrutiny, including investigations by state attorneys general and federal financial monitoring.” In other words – peers!

While this brouhaha is over federal funding and institutional accreditation, we have all heard the charges often lobbed at programmatic accreditors – “the guild” out to promote its own professions rather than assure quality programs. But a recent video produced by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), a series of interviews with college presidents, reinforces how deeply ingrained is the principle of peer review []. It is our duty to demonstrate through our own processes that we are, in fact, in the business of quality assurance, which happens to be best assessed by the experts in the professional discipline – the peers!