Tolerance, Diversity, and Community

The Role of Regional Accreditation

Conference Proceeding


Good morning. On behalf of the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, it is a pleasure to be with you this morning, although not in person. Certainly I am with you very much in spirit. I want to begin by thanking President Cecil Samuelson and Dr. Gerrit Gong for the opportunity to participate in this important event at Brigham Young University.

This is an event whereby Brigham Young University takes yet another significant step in reaching its fullest potential and maintaining its stature as an internationally recognized first-class university. The title of our session this morning is “Tolerance, Diversity, and Community,” three very complex notions, each of which indeed could be the focus of, at the very least, a daylong retreat.

The focus of my remarks is twofold. First, I will explicate the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities’ notions of diversity, tolerance, and community—notions that reflect and embrace the norms and values of our American academy. And second, I will set forth the commission’s expectations with regard to diversity, tolerance, and community as practiced in our accredited institutions of higher education.

Let me begin, if I may, with certain premises that pertain to accreditation granted by the Northwest Commission. First, the commission’s standards apply only to our institutions in the northwest region. These standards, though different in detail from other accrediting commissions, include similar criteria that reflect the principles of accreditation, including academic freedom.

Second, regional accreditation’s dual purposes, as many of you in the audience—my friends and colleagues who serve as evaluators for the Northwest Commission—so well know, are quality assurance and continuous improvement.

Third, the evaluation system is based solely on peer review.

Fourth, the overarching purpose of the commission and regional accreditation is to protect the public interest. This is the tour de force of American regional accreditation, and this purpose remains strong and vibrant and perhaps is needed more today in this uncertain world than ever before.

Fifth, we the commission are created by you, our academic institutions, to ensure adherence to academic principles that undergird our American academy.

Sixth, and this is very critical and very pertinent to today’s forum: regional accreditation is mission centered. The mission of the institution—in this case the mission of Brigham Young University—is the benchmark against which the commission evaluates each institution.

And seventh, regional accreditation commissions historically have upheld two fundamental constructs that reflect our American democratic traditions and our decentralized system of higher education. These constructs are institutional autonomy and academic freedom.

One defining characteristic of regional accreditation in the northwest region is the diversity of the institutions we accredit. Our seven states include Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Alaska, and the great state of Utah, as well as one candidate institution in British Columbia. Each of our institutions is unique, with its own distinct character and mission and its own distinct subthemes of that mission. Applying the same set of standards, the commission accredits public and private institutions, community colleges, four-year liberal arts institutions, research universities, comprehensive institutions, specialized institutions with a single or dual programmatic focus, religious-affiliated institutions, and tribal colleges. Within our universe of accredited institutions, therefore, as you have just heard, is a range of missions, a diversity of missions. The commission has tolerance and respect for these missions, and we evaluate each institution on the basis of its distinct mission.

Our new accreditation model, which will be applicable to member institutions in 2011, begins with standard one, which focuses on mission and goals, and purposefully ends with standard five, which addresses mission fulfillment. The commission and our community of higher education institutions recognize that the diversity of our institutions reflects the diversity of student needs, the diversity of student interests, as well as the diversity of societal needs. We are an academic community that has made the case to our representatives on Capitol Hill and to those officials in the federal government that one size does not fit all in America’s system of higher education. Various types of institutions with their different missions allow higher education in our country to be the engine for innovation, for creativity, and for the generation of new knowledge. And this has been our pride and our honor for centuries.

Let us turn now more specifically to the commission’s expectations with regard to diversity, tolerance, and community. First, the commission expects our institutions to embrace and uphold the norms and values of our American academy, which include fostering intellectual inquiry and assuring academic freedom.

Second, our evaluative processes focus on the performance of the institution as a whole. We do not evaluate a particular faculty member’s performance or lack thereof. We expect the institutions to have policies and procedures in place to do that. We count on the institutions to ensure that there is individual academic freedom.

But here I must add a caveat: ensuring academic freedom does imply tolerance for different perspectives, but it does not imply giving license to individuals to act in an arbitrary and capricious way. Within a community, there need to be checks and balances. As academic institutions, we have a responsibility to provide students with various bodies of knowledge and theories to provide them a truly liberal education—and I say “liberal” now not in the sense of liberal versus conservative, but liberal education in the sense of liberal studies—to paraphrase the commission’s eligibility requirement number eleven, its standard for faculty, and its policy 9.1.

Let me share with you what the commission expects in this area. The commission expects that the institution’s faculty and students are free to examine and test all knowledge appropriate to their discipline or area of major as judged by the academic educational community in general. Regardless of institutional affiliation or sponsorship, the institution needs to maintain an atmosphere in which intellectual freedom and independence exist. Intellectual freedom does not rule out commitment; rather, it makes it possible and personal. Freedom does not require neutrality on the part of the individual or the educational institution—certainly not toward the task of inquiry and learning, nor toward the value systems that may guide them as persons or as institutions.

From my perspective as president of the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, I maintain that the defining and distinctive characteristic of our American higher education system and higher education in the northwest region is the diversity of our institutions. That diversity is our strength, and that diversity has kept us alive and well and prosperous. Brigham Young University has embraced and can continue to effectively embrace the principles of accreditation and continue to meet our standards for accreditation and related policies while concomitantly fulfilling the university’s distinct mission and goals, which include ensuring academic excellence, encouraging meaningful engagement in the generation of new knowledge, and fostering a climate of intellectual inquiry that reflects America’s time-honored value of exploring and examining different bodies of knowledge to create a learning environment that gives homage to America’s quest to be a truly learned society.

As our faculty engages in this intellectual inquiry, my hope, my expectation, is that individuals will always do so with civility and not vanity. To be part of our great academic American enterprise is not a right but a responsibility. We recognize that the most potent force for ensuring tolerance lies not with the commission but with the highly qualified, competent faculty at Brigham Young University and at all our accredited institutions who embrace the norms and values of the academy as faculty and as Americans.

We together, all of us, are responsible for maintaining the integrity of our institutions, academic integrity, and the integrity of regional accreditation, which allows institutions and not the government, with all due respect, to chart our future destiny. I commend President Samuelson and his colleagues for providing this venue today for reflection, for introspection, and for Brigham Young University to engage in continuous improvement and to ensure that it is meeting its highest goals and its distinctive mission. I thank you for this opportunity to be with you via distance but in spirit today.

About the author(s)

Sandra Elman is the President of the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities in Redmond, Washington. She is the past chair of the Council of Regional Accrediting Commissions (CRAC), which is comprised of the presidents and chairs of the seven regional accrediting commissions. Prior to assuming the position of president in 1996, Elman was the associate director of the Commission on Institutions of Higher Education of the New England Association of Schools and Colleges. Before joining regional accreditation, she held a variety of administrative and faculty positions at the University of Massachusetts, the University of Maryland, and the University of California, Berkeley. She has published extensively in the fields of public policy and higher education and is coauthor of New Priorities for the University: Educating Competent Individuals for Applied Knowledge and Society Needs. She is an adjunct faculty member at Oregon State University and is a past chair of the board of trustees of Unity College in Maine. Elman received her BA degree in history and political science from Hunter College in New York and her MA and PhD degrees in policy, planning, and administration from the University of California, Berkeley.



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Print ISSN: 2837-0031
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