The University of Oregon’s accreditor is making changes to its eligibility requirements, standards for accreditation and policies as part of an on-going self-reflection and its five-year review with the U.S. Department of Education.
However, Chuck Triplett, UO administrator and accreditation liaison officer, did not tell the University of Oregon community that these changes were coming or that they could make recommendations to the policies.
The current draft shortens definitions of academic freedom and shared governance and could affect the school’s ability to receive federal research grants if the draft doesn’t change.
The university’s accreditor, the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, contacted the institutions it accredits and asked them to provide input and public comment during the 16-month revision process, NWCCU President Sonny Ramaswamy said.
The final draft is scheduled to be voted on by each university’s president in August 2019 and implemented in early 2020. For a timeline of the process, go here.
Accreditation is a voluntary process that recognizes and verifies universities for their quality and subsequently makes them eligible for federal financial aid.
Triplett received an email from the accreditors on Dec. 3, 2018 outlining the public comment period and two online town halls to provide input. He did not tell faculty that the changes were happening or that there was opportunity for public comment.
“Our expectation is that our accreditor liaison officer representative was going to be engaging their faculty, staff and students and bring in that information to us,” Ramaswamy said.
Concerns over the current draft of the policies — including moving and shortening academic freedom and shared governance from standards of accreditation to eligibility requirements — caused UO Provost Jaynath Banavar and Senate President Bill Harbaugh to send in letters of proposed revisions.
Removing this language could negatively impact the university’s access to federal research grants and control over course designs and approval, Harbaugh said.
“A critical component of research is that the faculty have full freedom over what research is conducted,” according to Banavar’s letter.
Harbaugh said he found out about the changes and the public comment period in late March, one week before the period was originally scheduled to close.
“Obviously we were pretty upset about that.” Harbaugh said. “[Ramaswamy] told us that we had a liason, Chuck Triplett, that was supposed to keep the faculty informed about accreditation stuff. We explained that that had not been happening.”
In a statement to the Emerald, Triplett explained the accreditor review process.
“A first draft of the revised standards was released in February 2019 to which the university senate president, the provost and the Oregon statewide provost’s council submitted public comment. A second draft of the revised standards is expected to be released in July 2019 and faculty, staff and students will have another opportunity to provide comment before the standards and eligibility requirements are finalized,” Triplett said.
Harbaugh said that commenting on the proposed changes before the second round of public comment is important because the first round of public comment typically elicits the most change.
“There were so many issues with this first round that we were really worried,” Harbaugh said. “We actually asked them to add a third round to make sure there was really substantive feedback, but I don’t think they’re going to do that.”
The first round of public comment was originally from February to March; however, it was extended to end on April 15 to allow for more time for comment.
The NWCCU created this draft of the proposal after various town halls, both in person and online, and results from an online survey.
The survey included 155 responses across the 160 colleges and universities accredited by NWCCU: 106 responses from administrators, 24 from staff members, 10 listed as other and zero faculty members or students.
“[NWCCU] made no effort to reach out to the actual faculty,” Harbaugh said. “This was all a bunch of administrators and politicians — including the Department of Education — doing this without any real input from faculty.”
Ramaswamy said faculty members spoke at the various town halls held and provided their input there.
Other universities reached out with faculty comment after UO sent in their letters. Ramaswamy said his office received around “half a dozen to a dozen’’ emails after UO’s letters.
“Thanks to the folks at the University of Oregon, we’ve got a lot more faculty becoming engaged as well, which is a good thing,” Ramaswamy said. “I’m glad they did that.”
Challenges to academic freedom
The current NWCCU standards of accreditation include language that supports academic freedom, such as freedom of speech and independent thought.
The proposed changes remove “academic freedom” from standards of accreditation and instead includes it in the proposed eligibility requirements. Eligibility requirements are items the institution must fulfill to join the NWCCU. Standards of accreditation are the items that are continuously checked throughout the time the institution is accredited.
“The agencies that fund that research insist that the people who get the funding have the freedom to investigate and write what they want,” Harbaugh said. “For [the NWCCU] to take away that accreditation policy could be a problem for getting that federal funding.”
Ramaswamy said moving the academic freedom language into the eligibility requirements instead of the standards of accreditation embeds it into a more purposeful category.
“We want to make sure that the faculty and the students and everybody at the university is able to speak freely about political matters in the country, in the world and also at the university,” Harbaugh said. “Without a requirement that the university has policies to protect that kind of freedom, it’s unclear what will happen.”
Shared governance in higher education accounts for the chain of command between governing groups at the university. At UO, the board of trustees has ultimate control over the university. Day-to-day administration is the president's responsibility and faculty have substantial control over academic matters with input from the administration and students, Harbaugh said.
Under the current policy, faculty has control of the grading and designing of courses. However, under the proposed changes, the language is weakened and does not define each aspect of the original policy.
“We are concerned about the minimal references to the importance of faculty in sharing the governance responsibilities for institutions, and the reduced voice given to students in decision-making and processes in the proposed standards,” according to the provost’s letter.
“It’s not surprising that [the NWCCU] tried to take out the academic freedom language and tried to weaken shared governance and that they tried to weaken faculty control of the curriculum – there were no faculty involved,” Harbaugh said. “They should admit that and start the process over.”