Accreditation Warning: How Big a Deal is It?

August 15, 2012 at 4:19 pm 7 comments

If nothing else, living with this scandal for the past nine months is making me a more savvy consumer of the news. Around the magazine office we’re constantly sending each other links to news articles—”Have you seen this one?”—and often someone will give the rest of us a decent analysis of how much weight we should give to that particular article.

All of us worked in some form of journalism or another before coming to the magazine, with Lori Shontz ’91 probably having had the longest career—she’s been a reporter at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and right before we hired her she was Sunday sports editor at the Miami Herald. And Lori teaches an undergraduate class in news writing, so she’s especially attuned to these things. I’ve learned a lot from hearing her evaluate the quality of various news stories.

The idea of looking at the news with a critical eye, and not being too reactive to everything I read, came in handy on Monday evening, when word came out that Penn State had received a warning from its accrediting organization—the Middle States Commission on Higher Education. The early stories seemed to be based primarily on a Penn State news release, and they came off as little alarmist, talking about how Penn State’s accreditation “is in jeopardy” and laying out the calamities that would ensue if Penn State lost accreditation: students fleeing, federal funding drying up, and so on.

To be fair, the Middle States Commission did use the phrase “in jeopardy” in its Aug. 8 letter to Penn State. And for Penn State to lose its accreditation would indeed be huge. But what was lacking in the early news reports was an assessment of how likely that was, or any sort of context as to what it means to receive a warning from the Middle States Commission.

Within about 24 to 36 hours, though, some better, more informative stories started to appear. I’d recommend reading this one in the Philadelphia Inquirer, which talks about some of the other schools that have received warnings in recent years, and which quotes the president of the American Council on Education as saying Penn State is “a great university. Its academic quality is superb. …If I were a mother of a youngster who had been accepted to Penn State, there is nothing in this set of events that would cause me to have second thoughts about the choice of school.”

There’s also this story in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, which quotes Don Heller, dean of the College of Education at Michigan State, as saying: “I frankly wouldn’t be too concerned about it from Penn State’s perspective. I don’t think Middle States is looking to revoke the university’s accreditation.” Don is former director of Penn State’s Center for the Study of Higher Education and someone whose opinions I’ve come to trust a lot. (He also was one of the experts in our student-affordability roundtable in the magazine a few years back.)

Incidentally, Penn State has a Web page devoted to its accreditation—it has a link to the Middle States Commission’s letter, as well as to some of the previous interactions between the university and the accrediting agency since last November.

Tina Hay, editor

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7 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Amy J '82  |  August 15, 2012 at 4:43 pm

    While I realize that we’re not likely to lose accreditation, it’s hard not to find it all absurd and insulting.

  • 2. John Denne  |  August 15, 2012 at 4:54 pm

    Agree with Amy J. There was absolutely no need for a formal warning in the first place. And to link it to the NCAA was preposterous. This smacks of grandstanding by the pompous.

  • 3. Anonymous  |  August 15, 2012 at 7:03 pm

    This is grandstanding. I’m an academic and I have been at two institutions while they were going through the Middle States accreditation process. These are intense reviews and, usually, focus on curriculum issues. Leadership and governance is included (I do wonder, if they feel so strongly to issue a warning, why didn’t they catch the issues themselves and what are they saying about their own omissions and failures).

    To me, this is just them trying to be “tough on crime” like every other organization associated with PSU. When one organization penalizes or makes a strong statement, the media moves on to the next. Then, that organizations feels like they should jump on the bandwagon. I guess it is Middle States’ turn.

    All of this decreases the validity and reputation of Middle States.

  • 4. Melissa  |  August 15, 2012 at 7:23 pm

    I read an interesting snippet by MIchael Wyland at the NonProfit Quarterly today that reiterated Anonymous’ point. He indicated, “One wonders about the criteria and investigative depth of the Middle States Commission’s accreditation process if the Freeh Report was necessary to alert them to irregularities and departure from best practice and, in some cases, simple compliance with existing mandates. The Penn State revelations may be a wake-up call for accreditation bodies such as the Middle States Commission to review their own criteria and investigative rigor in examining how universities are operated.”

  • 5. R Thomas Berner  |  August 16, 2012 at 5:39 am

    Thanks for the good news. I was boiling mad when the original story came out.

  • 6. Lynn  |  August 17, 2012 at 12:36 pm

    I feel like its “everyone take a swipe at the Penn State pinata.” We’re down – keep hitting. The problem is some people just will read the original news release and then think “Penn State lost it’s accreditation or is about to lost it.” They won’t ever read anything beyond that.

  • […] President Rod Erickson gave an update on the warning Penn State received two weeks ago from its accrediting agency, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education. The […]

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