A powerful threat to intellectual and religious liberty is afoot. In a region embracing 19 states, including Colorado, colleges and universities are under the authority of a federally empowered agency that recently issued a draft protocol, giving itself the prerogative to decide whether a school sufficiently “ensures inclusive and equitable treatment of diverse populations.”
By law, this agency, the Higher Learning Commission can cut off federal student loans and grants at any “noncompliant” school by withdrawing accreditation. The threat is subtle but very dangerous—and hardly new among accrediting agencies.
Previously, Higher Learning Commission clearly acknowledged that schools necessarily differ in their diversity policies and procedures. The original guidelines stated that each school should act “as appropriate within its mission and for the constituencies it serves” (emphasis added). Now that crucial proviso is targeted for deletion.
If the Higher Learning Commission implements this version, a Christian college’s maintenance of its religious standards for sexual morality could cost the school its federal funding. The Higher Learning Commission would be the final arbiter regarding gender equity and campus climate.
The proposed changes threaten to break trust and the Higher Education Act, which guarantees respect for the religious missions of schools. It is deeply disturbing that such a change is even under consideration.
In 1965, Congress empowered accreditors to ensure that federal funds only flow to institutions “of educational quality.” What would make these agencies believe that it is appropriate to tamper with the religious principles of Christian institutions that long ago proved their academic merit? But the attempts of accreditors all around the country to tamper go back many years, and they continue.
In 1991, the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools threatened to withdraw Westminster Theological Seminary’s accreditation because, in accordance with its charter, only male elders could serve on its board. Lamar Alexander, Secretary of Education at the time, retorted: “I did not know it was the job of an accrediting agency to define for a university what its diversity ought to be.”
Then in 1994, a different accreditor, the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, threatened Thomas Aquinas College with loss of accreditation if it failed to make its storied Great Books curriculum more multicultural. Gerhard Casper, Stanford University’s president at the time, denounced the accreditor so forcefully that it backed down.
In 2007, the American Bar Association promulgated a vague new diversity standard for the law schools it accredits, advising that it would make judgments on “the totality of the law school’s actions.” Then Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings challenged the diversity standard and put the accreditor on notice, cutting short the expected term for the ABA’s renewal of authority to accredit. In 2014, Massachusetts’ Gordon College faced an accreditor’s threat for its policies on sexual morality.
The nature of Higher Learning Commission’s proposed change threatens not only religious institutions, but the autonomy of the country’s colleges and universities.
One of the advantages of American higher education—and a big reason it has long been the envy of the world—is precisely that it has not been shoehorned into an overarching system. American higher education has grown organically from communities and visionaries, reflecting our country’s independence of thought.
And now it is, once again, precisely that independence of thought that is at risk.
The Higher Learning Commission would instead privilege its idea of “diversity,” driving all of its member institutions to its homogenized understanding of diversity.
Colorado Rep. Ken Buck’s response to the Higher Learning Commission’s initiative was blunt: “I oppose any attempt by an accrediting agency to thwart the legitimate mission of a university.” In the upcoming reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, Congress can take back accreditors’ overbroad authority to intrude upon institutional mission and governance. The nation then might look forward to a system of higher education quality control focused on outcomes, not intrusion into the prerogatives, mission, and liberty of America’s diverse institutions.
Donald W. Sweeting, an ordained minister in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, is president of Colorado Christian University in Lakewood. Michael Poliakoff is president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. He previously served as vice president for academic affairs and research at the University of Colorado.