Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Ethics of Accreditation

Educational accreditation is unethical because it is government-initiated coercion to control the production and distribution of education. In the United States the control is indirect; in most other countries it is direct. Accreditation also infringes academic freedom, though that concept itself is a mixed product of government involvement in education.

Accreditation is the process of certifying a minimum level of quality in schools and colleges. A first, simple question arises. Who accredits the accreditors? Who certifies the certifiers? Or, as Ayn Rand and others have put it more generally: who protects us from our protectors? The statist assumption is that experts in the government know what is best for us because they are not motivated by the selfish profit motive. As consequence, they should have the final say on quality. This ignores that Adam Smith’s invisible hand metaphor applies equally, albeit inversely, to bureaucrats who proclaim their goals as serving the “public interest” when in fact the behavior invariably is led “as if by an invisible hand” to benefit the special interests that lobby them.

The first one hundred years of American public education were dominated by one special interest, white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, at the expense of Catholics, Jews, African-Americans, and, often, women, plus other ethnic groups and religious and philosophical persuasions. Today, public education is dominated by the special interests of political correctness. And it has always been dominated by the premise that the omnipotent government knows best.

Who determines quality in the free market? The market! That is, all the people who participate in the process of producing, buying, and selling goods and services. Ultimately, it is determined by the value judgments of consumers through their repeated buying of products they like and abstention from buying of products they do not like. Entrepreneurial competition and the pursuit of selfish profit over time leads to better and better products that better meet the needs and wants of consumers. The same would apply in a free market in education, if such existed.

Accreditation at the university level in the United States consists of seven “natural monopolies” that regulate higher education in a particular region of the country and many specialized agencies that govern specific programs, such as health or business education. Accreditation is “voluntary” (and therefore indirect) in the sense that no school or program is required to go through the approval process, but not having such approval severely restricts the availability of government money for student loans and other uses. All accrediting agencies must be approved by the US Department of Education. This is what puts them into the government-initiated coercion category. “Cartel” and “licensing monopoly” are appropriate descriptions that come to mind. That most education is provided by the government reinforces the ethical issue. Privately funded and controlled education in other countries is extremely rare, if non-existent altogether.

In contrast, the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval originated in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as a market-based means of validating the quality claims of the magazine’s advertisers. Very early, however, the Seal of Approval came under the watchful eye of government oversight. Similarly, Underwriters Laboratories began as a market-based testing and certifying organization, but today its operations must be approved by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Academic freedom is a pretense at protecting free-speech rights. In a free-market—in education or anything else—the entrepreneur has the right to hire and fire at will anyone he or she disagrees with. The fired employee is then free to hang out his or her own shingle to start a new business. In the practice of government-owned and -controlled educational institutions, academic freedom means the freedom to speak and write within the narrow confines of what the government approves. Accreditation contributes to this narrowness by specifying the requirements of “academic qualification,” such as the possession of certain degrees or diplomas and the publication of a certain number of papers within a certain period of time. That the entire process is one of bean counting and hypocritical is readily acknowledged. That it ignores that science does not progress strictly through one flawed form of publication, such as the peer-reviewed journal article (1, 2), or in five-year cycles is shrugged off as irrelevant.

In practice accreditation is a good ol’ boy network of deans and retired professors. Universities court them, produce enormous mounds of paper every five years, and jump through hoops to win their anointments. Being accredited keeps the government money flowing. That is what accreditation is all about.


James said...

Can you please expand more on this quote:

"In the practice of government-owned and -controlled educational institutions, academic freedom means the freedom to speak and write within the narrow confines of what the government approves."

I was under the impression that accreditation was more of a rubber stamp for larger educational institutions because the government must maintain some sense of legitimacy, and that by-in-large the work of tenured academics was not under serious government pressure.

If this is not true, what does this mean for programs like BB&T's capitalist programs which the government is likely to disapprove of?

Jerry Kirkpatrick said...

Whoever calls the shots controls the game and the government controls education.

The government could go after BB&T's programs, if it wanted to, and that would not be difficult. The government, by means of its faculty representatives, could simply challenge the nature and legitimacy of BB&T-sponsored research. The government largely created the blind peer review system we have today and that's what restricts the products of peer-reviewed research to the narrowly conventional.

See my posts on peer review: http://www.jkirkpatrick.net/2007_04_01_archive.html and http://www.jkirkpatrick.net/2007_10_01_archive.html.