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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.