Monday, March 16, 2015

Accreditation: A Significant Step

I was paging through my Twitter feed a few days ago when I noticed a report of a faith-based college receiving their regional accreditation. With lots of years serving in Christian Higher Education as an administrator, I’m a bit wonky about such things… so I took notice.

Accreditation is a significant step for a school. I first started to think about it when I transferred to North Central Bible College from Purdue in 1986. NCBC had just received their accreditation a few years prior… and I was glad. When I first attended, I wasn’t sure if I would stay for more than a year; accreditation meant that my credits would likely go with me should I choose to transfer again. Now, nearly thirty-years later with a lot of administrative experience, I understand the importance of accreditation in a variety of ways including funding, reputation, recruiting, and partnerships.

I wondered how this faith-based institution was navigating the waters. Experience has taught me that there were likely divided factions among their constituencies.

The progressives among their constituents were likely happy that they are moving forward in such a significant way. They would be glad for the doors it opens for their students, faculty and graduates. It would likely lead to more funding opportunities for students, faculty, and programs. Accreditation is a significant achievement, and a real signal of approval from the academic community. And such a step indicates engagement of their faith with the culture.

The fundamentalists among their constituents might not be so happy. Accreditation might be equated with worldliness. Seeking the approval of man is juxtaposed with seeking the approval of God… another step toward the dying of the light. Some of the fundamentalists might pull their support; they might no longer fund the institution, influence prospective students to attend, or hire their graduates. They might just look for another institution to support… or maybe they’ll just start their own.

Here’s the thing about this particular story… the faith-based institution is Zaytuna College. Apparently Zaytuna College is now the first accredited Muslim college in America. Starting as an institute nearly twenty years ago in Northern California and adding a seminary program along the way, Zaytuna is now located in Berkley with undergraduate students studying in the recently-accredited, liberal-arts curriculum.

I wonder what people of my ilk think about the first accredited Muslim college in America.

I imagine that there are some fundamentalists (fundamentalist Christians and fundamentalist patriots) who are reacting negatively. Should we legitimize a Muslim college with regional accreditation and thus recognition by the U.S. Department of Education? Should students be able to earn their Bachelor of Arts in Islamic Law and Theology (the only degree offered) while being funded by state and federally funded grants? 

Progressives among my ilk will welcome Zaytuna to the academic community, with the expectation that Zaytuna’s perspective will add something valuable to the dialog, and with the expectation that the academic community will impact Zaytuna, and thus influence Zaytuna’s constituencies.

I’m pretty much on the side of the progressives on this one. I’m surprised that, until now, there were no accredited Muslim colleges in the United States… so I am glad that there is at least a first. It seems to me that too much of Islam is stuck in pre-modern ages. From where will the Muslim leaders emerge who will continue to bring Islam through the modern ages and into our post-modern age? It seems far more likely that such leaders will come from places like Zaytuna in Berkley rather than some cloistered, unaccredited madrasa hidden in the backwoods.

This story is interesting on several levels, but maybe most interesting to me in regards to how steps like accreditation impact an institution’s relationships with its constituencies. Accreditation is just one example; other steps might include:
  • name change (from institute to college to university),
  • addition of programs (such as when school consisting of mostly ministry degrees adds major in business or liberal arts, or other professional programs like nursing),
  • expansion of scope (such as adding graduate degrees, branch campuses, or online degrees), 
  • partnerships with government, business, or other organizations, 
  • receiving funding from new sources, and 
  • loosening of affiliation requirements (accepting students from other traditions, bringing in board members from outside, or hiring faculty from other traditions who maintain those ties).

I’ll be talking to a group of leaders about such things in the coming days. Some of the questions I have in mind include: 
  • What are other steps that might be perceived as an institution stepping away from its core constituencies? 
  • Are there good examples of institutions stepping back toward its core constituencies?   
  • Is a faith-based institution primarily a ministry to the sponsoring church, of the sponsoring church, or by the sponsoring church?  
  • What are the strongest means of an institution’s bonds its core constituencies? (mission, style, culture, proximity, finances, theology, worldview)  
  • Does leadership primarily come from the church to the academic institutions, or does leadership primarily flow from the academic institutions to the church?   
  • How is an institution’s affiliations to the core constituencies best communicated to the members of the core constituency?   
  • What are the downsides to fully embracing an institution’s affiliations to the core constituencies? Do the downsides matter? 
Any other good questions or observations come to mind? Feel free to comment.