In recent months, college and university accrediting agencies have come under attack by leading conservative figures who claim the agencies are bastions of far-left political beliefs and responsible for infusing DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) standards into higher education. But accreditors say their work is being miscategorized and the negativity is unfounded.

Educating the public about the true nature of their process could help resolve the challenges, accrediting leaders say. Meanwhile, they continue to face political and legislative battles.

In May, former president Donald Trump issued a campaign video in which he vowed to fire the “radical left accreditors” should he secure the presidency in 2024. Trump claimed they have failed to protect students and taxpayers and suggested they need to be replaced by new accrediting agencies.

The following month, Gov. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., and his administration filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Education that claims the power wielded by accrediting agencies is unconstitutional.

“Within the next couple of years, I think we’re going to see this accreditation cartel basically come crumbling down and more freedom in higher education reigning supreme,” DeSantis said in announcing the lawsuit, the latest in a series of actions he has taken against accreditors.

Also in June, another Florida politician, Sen. Marco Rubio (R), proposed the “Fairness in Higher Education Accrediting Act,” which seeks to ban agencies from using DEI and affirmative action policies as criteria in the accrediting process. Co-sponsored by Senators Rick Scott (R-FL) and Mike Lee (R-UT), the bill will prevent accreditors from putting “direct pressure on universities to comply with woke standards or risk reputational financial ruin,” according to a press release.

Most of the nation’s largest accreditation agencies, however, include very little language related to DEI principles in their current standards. In fact, it was not until 2022 that the Council for Higher Education Accreditation — which oversees the six major U.S. regional accreditors — added its first requirement in support of DEI. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC), which includes Florida’s higher education institutions, has only a position statement — rather than an actual accreditation standard — related to DEI.   

“Our main concern is that people are not defining what accreditation does, so they’re muddying the waters when they could be educating people about the value of accreditation,” says Rosalind Fuse-Hall, director of legal and government affairs and commission support at SACSCOC. “Accreditation ensures that there’s quality and integrity in the higher education process, and we’ve been doing that for years, even before there was a [U.S.] Department of Education.”

It’s important to note that colleges and universities dictate the accreditation standards enforced by the agencies — not the other way around, Fuse-Hall says.

“We don’t sit in little cubicles in the SACSCOC office and make up these rules and standards,” she says. “They’re made by the people who are governed by them, so the administrators, faculty, librarians — all of them — serve in these various evaluative roles.”

Together, these individuals ensure quality education is provided to students across a wide variety of campuses, from small seminaries to large research institutions, Fuse-Hall says.

“[The standards] are broad enough to allow different [institutions] to seek quality improvement and be able to fit the standards without having to have lots of different types of criteria for different types of institutions,” she says.

Jamienne S. Studley, JD
Jamienne S. Studley, JD

Jamienne S. Studley, JD, president of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges Senior College and University Commission, agrees that the value of accreditation lies in the fact that institutions dictate quality standards for themselves.

“It’s logical that the federal government doesn’t do [accreditation], in part to avoid the political division that we’re seeing right now,” she says. “Institutions know better what to look for when judging other institutions, so we have a well-developed peer review process to do just that.”

The process also involves members of the public to ensure a balanced view from people who are outside the academy, Studley says, and this carefully designed system ensures the kind of independence and critical questioning that some critics have said is lacking.   

In the wake of criticism, accrediting agencies must do a better job of explaining their purpose in higher education, not change the way they carry it out, Studley says.

“I think it becomes ever more important for accreditation agencies to be clear about what we do and how we contribute to value in higher education, but I don’t see any reason for us to change the thoughtful, institutional, mission-driven review of educational effectiveness, student outcomes, and equality that we now undertake so carefully,” she says.

Representatives from other agencies agree that more transparency regarding the process is necessary so the public — and critics — can better understand how and why this process takes place.

Heather F. Perfetti, JD, EdD
Heather F. Perfetti, JD, EdD

“We recognize that accreditation is complex and often misunderstood,” Heather F. Perfetti, JD, EdD, president of the Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE), says. “We are committed to helping others understand our work and the relationship and responsibilities we hold within the regulatory triad and with our constituent institutions, students, and the public.”

Perfetti notes that MSCHE, which includes DEI as one of its five guiding principles, will continue to uphold its work regardless of political attacks.

“The Commission will continue to advocate for and celebrate the practices of institutions that seek to reveal and address disparate impacts and appreciate how institutions can reflect on their work with the support of the Commission’s standards for accreditation, requirements for affiliation, policies, and procedures to support meaningful change at our institutions and in our communities,” she says.

Barbara Gellman-Danley, PhD
Barbara Gellman-Danley, PhD

Barbara Gellman-Danley, PhD, president of the Higher Learning Commission, says the agencies are, for now, protected in their work by legislation.

“We respect the right of everyone to run [for office] and say what they want, but there are federal laws that dictate what accreditation is and how it relates to the Higher Education Act,” she says. “So, we watch what [critics] are saying, but we’re respectful and aware that sometimes recommendations are made that do not align with federal law.”

Gellman-Danley agrees that if accreditation were better understood, there would be less criticism against it.

“Without quality assurance, you’d have a wild, wild West in higher education,” she says. “That’s why accreditors were put into place, so there would be individual groups that were not political that worked really hard on identifying criteria for institutions.”

This article was published in our November/December 2023 issue.