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The End of Accreditation? Not So Fast!!

A “doctoral” degree in biblical/religious studies is meant to represent a level of competence that should be valued and cannot be simply self-proclaimed. We owe this not only to students who pay their tuition dollars but to employers who don't want to waste time with unqualified candidates.

By Hector Avalos
Iowa State University
July 2010

Jim West's attack on accreditation of conventional institutions of higher learning is self-serving and logically incoherent. Within the context of recent discussion in the SBL about secularist and religionist approaches to biblical studies, West's attack is related to the question of whether professional organizations should require certain academic qualifications for membership.

First, accreditation is meant to ensure that individuals or organizations do not make claims that only have their own say-so for their justification.

A “Medical Doctor” should not be able to represent himself or herself as such without completing the amount of training that accredited physicians must undergo. Otherwise, allowing anyone to call himself or herself a “Medical Doctor” is unfair to those who did expend the required labor, not to mention presenting a risk to the public.

Accreditation also is meant to ensure that someone calling himself or herself a “Medical Doctor” does not set up a school without oversight from other doctors who are qualified to review whether the standards, procedures, and facilities of such a school are adequate for the purpose intended.

Similarly, a “doctoral” degree in biblical/religious studies is meant to represent a level of competence that should be valued and cannot be simply self-proclaimed. We owe this not only to students who pay their tuition dollars but to employers who don't want to waste time with unqualified candidates.

West's attack on accreditation is logically inconsistent because his own use of the title “Doctor” is already a concession to the whole mentality of accreditation. West apparently thinks that word, “Doctor,” does confer some sort of information about competence to his intended audience.

Similarly, West presumably has been certified as a minister in his denomination. So should we not have ministerial credentials because not all ministers are competent?

Indeed, West represents the success of accreditation as a zero-sum game, as is evident in one of his comments posted:

“well hector if accreditation guaranteed competence i might agree with you. but doctors from accredited schools kill people every day with their lack of competence. so arguing that competence is guaranteed by accreditation is foolhardy.”

Another commentator (JD) on West's thread added that: “Checking in Wikipedia, I was shocked to learn that Medical Malpractice kills over 100,000 people a year! This is incredible, and all done by accredicted [sic] doctors.”

The premise here is that if accreditation does not supply a 100% success rate in particular valued feature, then we ought to eliminate it. By this logic, if doctors do not achieve a 0% mortality rate on the basis of competence, then we are better off not testing or certifying doctors at all for their competence. Apparently, not testing at all will reduce mortality rates from 100,000 to zero per year.

Such statistics, furthermore, are very crude measures and can actually be a good argument for more stringent accreditation. According to a study of such deaths published by William M. Sage and Rogan Kersh, eds., Medical Malpractice and the U.S. Health Care System (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), p. 238: “The main motivation for safety to date has been hospitals' needs to satisfy the quasi-regulatory requirements of the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Health Care Organizations.”

For similar reasons, it is futile to point to a few examples of brilliant scholars, especially from the era before modern accreditation. This is like saying that because surgeons in the 18th century did not have to be certified, then we ought not insist on testing physicians for competence today. Besides, there probably has long been some sort of accreditation, but it may not have been the more formalized and systematic ones we know today.

Curiously, West is a well-known opponent of home schooling (see: http://www.heardworld.com/higgaion/?p=182.) But why oppose home schooling if students can be as competent as those who go to public schools? Why not get rid of public schools since going to them does not “guarantee” that you might even read or write competently?

Indeed, West's examples become a good argument for IMPROVING accreditation procedures, and not for eliminating them. West is also inconsistent in this statement: “insisting on college is one thing- insisting on the industry of accreditation is quite another.”

But doesn't college also entail accreditation of students?

That is to say, is not a college degree/diploma a form of accreditation that tells employers that a student has undergone review at various levels? Is higher education not an industry insofar as it thrives on tuition or government subsidies?

West's attack on accreditation is particularly incoherent because the website of his own Quartz Hill School of Theology (QHST) appeals to analogous forms of accreditation such as: “Faculty are members of academic associations such as the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature ” (see: http://www.theology.edu/welcome-.htm).

But what is that supposed to mean? Does being a member of an “academic association” confer more credibility on the faculty of QHST? Or is it more of an irrelevant and whimsical comment such as “our faculty are also members of the local bowling league and the Moose Lodge?”

As I read it, it is clearly meant to confer credibility of some sort, and so why does West think that being a member of the AAR or SBL matters? Does it “guarantee” success or better teaching?

QHST also states that students do not have to pay but that “there are certain advantages to paying. For instance you will get academic credit for your work.” Yet, why would I want “academic credit” for my work? Is such “academic credit” not another type of accreditation and does QHST not become part of that accreditation industry by demanding payment for “credit?”

Finally, West's attack on accreditation appears self-serving. It is being mounted by a promoter of an institution that presents itself as being equivalent to conventionally accredited schools for which students might pay good dollars for an equal or better education.

As such, QHST is competing with conventional universities/seminaries as much as the University of Phoenix, though the latter is spectacularly more successfully. Thus, QHST is certainly part of an “alternative schooling industry.”It is part of the “get-credentials-for-less” industry.

Indeed, QHST's advertising might be a disservice to prospective students who might be led to believe that “academic credit” from QHST means that they are just as good a candidate for jobs in conventional institutions as are graduates from other conventional institutions.

I actually do not have anything against people who are able to teach themselves or to achieve competence through alternative means. I received many university credits by learning languages on my own and taking final examinations in biblical Hebrew, Greek, and many other courses. But it is one thing to proclaim that I possess basic competence in biblical Hebrew or Greek, and it is quite another to have that competence also certified by independent judges or procedures.

Any professional scholarly society ought to insist that its members be properly accredited for membership for the same reasons that universities request the same of prospective faculty members. Accreditation is about having a system that ensures integrity and serves the needs of our students and employers. Where accreditation fails, it must be improved, not discarded.

Comments (9)

hector's angry but he doesn't prove his case. he simply fails to show how 'accreditation' guarantees quality. it doesn't, so he can't. therefore, he can bluster and fume but he remains unconvincing.

his ad hominem, by the way, proves the weakness of his case. were he genuinely able to prove the truth of his claim, he would simply state it and support it.
#1 - jim - 07/19/2010 - 11:31

Jim West's comment directly below this one is not directly to the point. If all Jim West was saying is that accreditation does not guarantee quality then he has not told us something we didn't already know. So the question is why he wrote hi article when he's merely stating the obvious, unless, he's boasting that although he does not have an accredited degree nor teach at an accredited college, that he is the exception. Maybe he is, but I would think his article should have just stated what he really wanted to convey, that he is an exception, if that was his not so hidden point.

The very fact Jim West wrote that article in the first place is indicative of the fact that he is NOT the exception, since he told us nothing we didn't already know. If Jim wants to make his point he should take the standards of the accrediation companies and tell us why they are unreasonable and afterward offer us a better alternative. But he did not do this because it seems he didn't know what was required to make his point.

#2 - John W. Loftus - 07/19/2010 - 12:01

Personally I thought Hector demolished your argument, Jim. The purpose of accreditation isn't to GUARANTEE anything. It is designed to ensure that the education provided meets acceptable levels of quality.
#3 - Mike Bateman - 07/19/2010 - 12:37

So Jim, are you going to see the shaman the next time you have cancer or an aneurysm?
#4 - HL - 07/19/2010 - 14:01

Face it, Hector Avalos is the guy who says that religion must be "eliminated from human life" in his book Fighting Words.

Many, of course, have tried this...Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin and others...and they have all failed.

So will Hector.

And it doesn't matter what his "accredidation" is.
#5 - JD - 07/19/2010 - 16:32

Accreditation is a form of reference. I do not have the expertise to quiz a potential physician on the intricacies of medical theory to determine if she understands science-based medicine (I regret having to add the 'science-based' qualifier). Accreditation, in the form of permission to practice medicine in California, assures me of some minimal level of training and competence. Yes, that level could be higher. It could be lower. The point is not to provide a guarantee, but a reference and bestowal of trust. Sometimes that trust is misplaced. More often, it isn't.
#6 - Nathan - 07/19/2010 - 16:59


Back in the day, people that needed a title to validate their own ego and educational shortcomings, called themselves Colonel
(Kernal). Now it is Doctor. Faux title du jour.
For $50 bucks I too can become a doctor. This title needs to be earned. A self proclaimed doctorate usually loses it\'s luster once that \"doc\" opens his/her mouth.

Let us think for a second. Who counts deaths directly due to med mal? Who decideds that it was med mal that caused the death? Do we have a traveling doc looking at corpses, checking the med mal box and submitting the info to the plaintiffs bar. I saw 200k last week in an article.
Ask yourself- Does that number sound reasonable? Every year a Rose Bowl full of people dead due to sinister and incompetent doctors ! Please?
JOhare VP Med mal claims Physicians Ins co Fl
#7 - james OHAre RPLU AIC AIS - 07/20/2010 - 10:44

Accreditation is well intended, but all it takes is one or are two poor departmental professors with tenure to destroy any academic standards. Fact is, an accredited university’s strength should be founded on objective requirements, but the teaching core is no better than the professors who teach the courses or make up a dissertation committee. Accreditation does require a college or university to have a department with a high percentage of professors with doctoral degrees, but accreditation will in no way take the place of state and national certifications which requires the student to prove him or herself, which bring me to my next point.

If accreditation really worked (as an end to itself), we wouldn’t require doctors to pass their state’s medical board; lawyers to pass their state’s Bar exam; CPA’s to pass their two day accounting exams or engineers to pass the PE (Professional Engineering Exam)since these exams are really the final objective way to test the ability of any school’s graduate, be they from an accredited school or not.

Accreditation is also good in that it informs any inquiring perspective student that the school has met an objective check list which is often required for further graduate work, but again, it does nothing to eliminate a professor who had the ability to prove him or herself as a student in graduate school, but can’t convey the material to their students! Not only that, but can destroy both the student’s enthusiasm and academic future in the subject. By this reference I mean that even on the accredited college or university level, there are almost never any just plain bad professors, but only hard professors (were the students usually seem to carry the blame for their professor's pedagogical incompetence)!

Facts prove that if a college or university wants accreditation, the internet lists any number of organizations willing to put their stamp of approval on that school for a price.

Case in point is Bob Jones University has an accredited seminary and graduate school made up of all earned doctorates; all awarded by the very school they are now teaching at (what I call “intellectual inbreeding”), plus their accreditation is further limited by requiring all their professors are to sign a yearly pledge in order to keep their jobs by upholding the school’s fundamentalist views on the Bible and Theology.

Again, then there is Jerry Farwell’s Liberty University (which prides itself by stating it is “the largest accredited Christian university in the world”) offers a two year home study Bible course called Liberty Home Bible Institute where one can move from a diploma in Biblical Studies to a Bachelors of Science in Religion.
Even the most famous correspondence degree mills is accredited: Luther Rice Seminary and University is a member of the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools which offers three bachelors, four masters, the MDiv and a DMin and where only three out of a faculty of twenty don’t have earned doctorates. Yet their website clearly states: Degree programs do not require campus resident studies. All required courses can be taken online.

In conclusion, it’s great to talk about accreditation and what it means to have that seal of approval on your school, but we must also ask just which organization has done the accreditation and, especially (when it comes to Department of Religious Studies, where, unlike other departments, the US Constitution requires separation of church and state), it seems as if the Department of Religion Studies is a side issue that just happened to be at the right school at the right time.
#8 - Harry H. McCall - 07/20/2010 - 23:06

I like Jim and find that he has useful things to say quite often; they are things I agree with. But this time I believe he has failed to make an adequate argument. Jim will write a blog post criticizing a journalist or some other individual from a media forum for being a dilettante (and rightfully he should—we all should), and yet his post on accreditation seems out of place with that same anti-dilettante attitude. For Jim to accuse others of being ignorant dilettantes, yet at the same time argue for a system which would perpetuate more dilettantes makes little sense.

I believe Hector is absolutely correct on this issue; it is one I had changed my position upon a few years ago. When I had been involved in the Jesus Project with him, I had not yet enrolled in an undergraduate program. Hector brought up some rather compelling points in favor of my return to school. In fact, he was so persuasive about accreditation and the value of being certified by an unbiased panel of experts, that he made me reconsider its value and my hesitancy on going back to school. It was the best decision I've made in a long time, and I'm not ashamed to admit I was wrong about my earlier dismissal of whole accreditation process. Here, too, I believe he has presented a rather strong case for it while at the same time exposing the inconsistencies and, perhaps, some misunderstandings from Jim’s proposal.

However, I do believe that Jim was not entirely wrong either; part of being an academic, from my limited experience so far (but what a wake-up call it has been!), is to call into question those things we take most for granted. After all, if we choose to ignore the fact that there is some debate surrounding this issue, even if we believe those debating the legitimacy of the methods or means to be incredulous to some degree (Jim, however, is not an incredulous individual, but a well-educated, competent, well spoken scholar who is highly respected by more than a few of my colleagues—many of whom classify themselves as secular or nonreligious), are we really being unbiased or critical? If all Jim wants to do is call into question the legitimacy of the accreditation process, by all means we should allow for it and we should allow for an examination of the process to determine if the quality of its applications are still suitable to a changing world, where University libraries are no longer the only source of Greek or Latin texts to an aspiring academic.

With that said though, I believe that Hector’s thorough and well-thought-out response is commendable and does speak volumes of the legitimacy of the process. Where Jim rightly questioned its current relevancy, Hector emancipated its value and then some. I believe it is time for Jim to recognize this and not repudiate it. Jim demanded, so to speak, that a critical look be taken, Hector answered the call and a critical look has not only occurred but arguments have been presented which support accreditation continued legacy in academia. As a result Jim would do well to accept this and move on, rather than fight against Hector—it seems all too pointless now. Unless Jim can provide adequate reasons to question Hector’s case, I fail to see how one can successfully continue a campaign against accreditation at this juncture.
#9 - T.S. Verenna - 07/28/2010 - 21:30

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