Alkahest my heroes have always died at the end

February 26, 2007

A subversive proposal

Filed under: University Life — cec @ 3:45 pm

A few years ago, I was an assistant research professor in a department whose college was undergoing its accreditation process. This happened, I believe, every five years or so and was a generally grueling process. Faculty were asked to maintain student work and submit it, anonymously, to the accreditation committee. We were asked to keep track of a representative set of students considered to be good, middle and poor performers. Labs spaces were evaluated. The process for determining curriculum was examined, etc., etc.

Of course, the college, and department, did pass its accreditation, but we had to put a significant amount of effort into it. I was on the outskirts of the process, but we had several associate and full professors dedicated to the process for pretty much the entire academic year.

Given all of that effort, I was interested to hear about the efforts by the Department of Education to revise the accreditation process. Their stated goal is to focus on student learning outcomes rather than proxies for university quality. I don’t think that anyone disagrees with an accreditation process focused on student learning. The problem is, how do you measure it? Consider the diversity of higher education. You have everything from community colleges with a two year program focused on specific, skills-based, knowledge to full blown research universities with four year, masters and doctoral programs. For many colleges and universities, the goal is less to educate to a specific set of skills and more to teach people how to think creatively and to expose them to new ideas about the world. It doesn’t matter how much businesses want colleges and universities to ensure a basic set of skills for their future employees, the goal of higher education is much broader than that.

All of which brings me to my proposal: stop accrediting colleges and universities and start accrediting the individual faculty members to teach specific courses.

Such a process change is probably impractical, but it would have an amazing effect. Students would could get approval for a specific curriculum, perhaps from someone accredited to design curricula, and could take classes from anyone accredited to teach the course. All it would take to start a new college or at least a new department would be a handful of accredited faculty working together. Alternatively, faculty could choose to go it alone. Students could take courses from any accredited faculty member and it would apply to their degree. Popular teachers could charge more for their classes. This might also solve a common problem in universities: no one wants to teach. With this accreditation system, faculty interested in teaching could work on that and be rewarded financially to the same degree that faculty currently interested in research are. Research faculty could focus on research without the hassle of teaching.

I know that this would a) be highly impractical; and b) would never happen, but it’s an interesting thought nonetheless.

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