Yes, We Need Accountability. But We Also Need Institutional Diversity.

Among many proposals for accreditation reform put forward by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, her call for accreditors to “honor individual campus missions” and avoid “one size fits all” methods has some appeal for colleges that focus on specific populations. While mission considerations have always been part of accreditation, across the past decade the rise of data-driven assessment and public-data aggregators like the College Scorecard has placed increasingly onerous burdens on institutions whose metrics often look different from the mainstream, including many women’s colleges, historically black colleges and universities, and minority-serving institutions.

Rebalancing mission and metrics in accreditation processes should not diminish accountability, as some critics of the proposal fear. Instead, it can provide greater opportunity for institutions and accreditors to interpret data in light of mission characteristics.

The current case of Bennett College, in Greensboro, N.C., is a prime example of the tension between mission and metrics in accreditation today. Last month the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools revoked Bennett’s accreditation after two years of probation because of unstable finances; Bennett is appealing, and the hearing will be in February. Bennett has launched a fund-raising campaign to come up with the $5.7 million necessary to prove to the association that the college can make it. #StandWithBennett hashtags fill social media, and celebrities like Jussie Smollett, of Empire, have lent their support. Many other women’s colleges and HBCUs have expressed solidarity with Bennett.

Bennett is not just any typical private college struggling with enrollment and finances. One of only two HBCUs in the nation devoted to the education of African-American women, Bennett holds an important place in the history of the civil-rights movement and educational advancement for black women. While the final decision is up to the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, the consequences of losing Bennett’s mission demand careful consideration.

Bennett’s mission remains relevant and urgent in an educational landscape that is still unequal and often hostile to women of color. If American higher education, with all of its wealth, cannot figure out how to sustain this important college that serves a small but mighty student body of African-American women, what has become of us? In a time when the University of Notre Dame’s nine-figure renovation of its football stadium gets front-page treatment in The New York Times, can we really stand by and allow Bennett to fail for want of $5 million?

While I do not know all of the details of Bennett’s situation, I recognize the circumstances described in the public record. At Trinity Washington University, where I am president, we serve a majority of African-American women along with a growing population of Latina women. We know the significant educational and social needs of women of color. We know that black and Hispanic women often find themselves marginalized in higher education, especially when they confront the issues that accompany race and social class in America: the still-pervasive problems of race and gender discrimination that thwart opportunities and undermine the confidence necessary for academic success; the acute effects of poverty that plague low-income students trying to find their way through the collegiate labyrinth; the challenges that too many young women face who are truly on their own while trying to figure out how to raise children and support families while conquering calculus and Plato.

Our students progress through college in different ways, resulting in persistence and completion rates that vary from those of more mainstream colleges. Similarly, data on postgraduate earnings are decidedly skewed by the pernicious effects of gender and race discrimination in employment. But there’s no place on the College Scorecard to explain that variance.

The notorious black-white wealth gap in America also clearly affects the ability of HBCUs and minority-serving institutions to amass the kind of wealth from contributions that is the norm at many majority-white institutions. We persist with slimmer budgets and fewer amenities because the mission is so important for our students.

Trinity’s story today would be much different — indeed, there would be no Trinity story today — but for the wise balance of mission and metrics when our accreditor, Middle States, came calling in Trinity’s time of great peril in the late 1980s.

Trinity then was still a very traditional Catholic women’s college with a predominantly white population, but enrollment had declined precipitously, and deficits were mounting. In 1987, as a young alumna on the Board of Trustees, I was stunned to hear the board chair read a letter from the then-head of the accreditor suggesting that Trinity might not survive.

Trinity persisted, and shortly after I became president, in 1989, I received a visitor from Middle States who delivered a stern final message about accreditation compliance. But that visitor, the late Dr. Minna Weinstein, also offered me and Trinity a lifeline: She said that we had a great and important mission, but that we had to make that mission work for the modern age. Instead of a shrine to the past, we had to be a true gateway for women of the future, women who were right on Trinity’s doorstep in the city.

She was right. The “compassionate rigor” of accreditation standards, deftly entwined with a healthy respect for mission, made Trinity’s re-invention possible.

Higher education today is a big business that has fewer spaces for smaller, special-mission colleges and universities. Like the disappearance of small, independent stores when the big-box retailers come to town, small colleges today face real threats in a business that exalts the splendor of a vast array of choices and exciting consumer amenities presented in irresistibly attractive packages. A small college with venerable buildings housing a carefully curated curriculum and cherished traditions has a hard time competing with the dazzling football stadiums, lazy rivers, and massive course catalogs of the big schools.

But for some students, what’s more important than a lazy river is a faculty member who calls you by name, who knows the name of your child, and who can be empathetic and helpful when family problems intrude on studies. For some students in America, cheering for a guy with a ball far down on the field is not nearly as important as having a true “room of one’s own” where the students and faculty members look like you, know what makes you tick, and can help you to dig deep within your own psyche to find the power to succeed in spite of many obstacles.

Special-mission institutions certainly must be accountable for quality and educational excellence. We take great pride in the high standards we set for ourselves; we have remarkable outcomes that prove our effectiveness in every academic cycle. We do not shrink from compliance with reasonable accreditation standards. But those standards must also account for mission characteristics that are essential to maintain the diversity of institutions throughout American higher education for the sake of the students who can thrive in an educational environment that engages and excites them. A fair balance of mission and metrics is the best way to make sure that higher education can continue to accommodate all of America’s remarkable diversity.

Patricia McGuire is president of Trinity Washington University.

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