The coming government squeeze on academic freedom

By Doug Carlson
Oct 12, 2010

Many colleges distinguish themselves in academia by offering decidedly Christian education, thanks to academic freedom. Other private schools committed to a unique mission or set of ideals benefit from this freedom as well. But under regulations set to hit institutions of higher learning, such freedom soon could be just a cherished memory of yesteryear.

Proposed regulations by the U.S. Department of Education, scheduled to take effect Nov. 1, would turn over the chief oversight of colleges and universities, public and private, from accrediting agencies to state governments, creating a massive web of red tape and mandates. Among the potentially devastating effects: forcing schools to choose between accreditation and their core principles. Christian schools, no doubt, have the most at stake.

The plan would require schools to clear “substantive” oversight of state governments—under the direction of the federal government, of course—in order to remain eligible for federal student aid. Only “authorized” institutions licensed by a state agency would make the cut. States would follow a “one-size-fits-all” approach as determined by the federal government, with latitude to establish standards and guidelines by which schools could be approved or denied.

This represents a serious departure from history. For more than a century, accrediting agencies have fulfilled the accreditation role, ensuring high academic standards relatively free from government interference. This has generally worked well. The same cannot be expected under the government’s heavy hand.

The Department of Education would not only duplicate efforts of the accrediting agencies but also slap schools with additional costs for compliance. And once the government’s tentacles are let loose next month, schools could feel the squeeze on academic freedom long enjoyed. For Christian institutions of higher learning, that potentially means being forced to adopt classes and curriculum diametrically opposed to their core beliefs.

“Proposed rules almost guarantee that states will have to cope with noisy arguments over teaching methods, degree requirements and culture wars over textbooks, evolution versus Intelligent Design, phonics versus whole language, campus ROTC, climate change, family policy, abortion, race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.,” warned former U.S. Sen. Bill Armstrong, now president of Colorado Christian University, in a letter to Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

The American Council on Education, representing more than 70 accrediting agencies and associations, cautioned in a letter to the Education Department that “the total potential impact of the proposal is difficult to estimate” but “what is clear is that attempts to implement the proposal would be chaotic as each state brings its own interpretation of the regulation to the table.” ACE added that the proposal “represents an inappropriate intrusion by the federal government into state responsibilities and prerogatives.”

With such governmental powers at work, one might then ask: If Christian colleges lose their identity in order to fulfill extreme state and federal mandates, then what would distinguish them from their public education counterparts? Hopefully schools are not brought to that point.

For most colleges, accreditation is vital for continuing operations. Should the government follow through with its proposed power grab of this process, it could rob generations to come of the education they desire. In that case, the government, not the students, will have failed.

While a public comment period on the Department of Education’s proposed regulations has now passed, our elected officials still have time to intervene. If you oppose the department’s plan, please ask your congressman and senators to tell Education Secretary Duncan to stop the regulations on colleges and universities from taking effect.

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