Within weeks, the federal government, through the Department of Education, will have the regulations in place to control potentially what’s taught in our nation’s private colleges and universities.
The idea is so startling, and so at odds with the concept of academic freedom and the fundamentals of American liberty, that it’s tempting to dismiss it as one of those classic “it cannot happen here” scenarios. But the danger is all too real, and one that I and many of my colleagues believe is the greatest threat to academic freedom in our lifetime.
While this obviously strikes personal alarm in those of us who run private universities and colleges, it should profoundly disturb every American.
The new regulations, to be finalized Nov. 1, will mandate that America’s private higher-education institutions must follow new federal guidelines in order to be accredited. Also at stake is whether those private institutions could accept students with government loans or grants.
Under the present system - which has served the country well for more than a century - both public and private institutions are vetted through an independent, nonpolitical accreditation process. The system, a network of six regional and national bodies, objectively measures whether an institution has maintained high academic standards. A classic example is the requirement that professors hold the appropriate degrees to teach in a particular discipline. It’s a system that has been implicitly recognized and trusted by generations of parents, college-bound students and potential employers as a seal of academic quality. It’s never been an imprimatur on the quality of the institution’s ideas.
But under the new mandate, a government panel - its format yet undetermined - will take into account public complaints and objections to an institution’s curriculum and content. Under the principle of “adverse action,” the state would have the power to deny an institution’s accreditation because of those negative findings, or because they may (theoretically) challenge some element of state policy.
At its starkest level, the new rules represent an administrative nightmare, requiring the addition of staff and man-hours to already overstressed college and university budgets.
Far worse, they open the way to pressure groups that seek to influence - or shut down - educational content at a private university. Any issue that might engage a college campus today, from climate change to abortion rights, even the presence of ROTC, could become grounds for complaints and government interference.
Religious and faith-based institutions are especially vulnerable because they are inherently ideological and often countercultural. For example, a Christian university could come under scrutiny for offering a survey on the history of traditional man-woman marriage without giving “equal time” to the other side. It could run afoul of the state for offering courses on intelligent design theory, which is critical of the conventional wisdom on evolution.
The potential for harm cuts all ways. In seeking accreditation, a private Jewish university could be flagged for offering a particular interpretation of Israeli-Palestinian conflicts; a Muslim institution for what it teaches about the Koran. Conceivably, mischief-makers could even meddle in a Buddhist program of peace studies that cultivates the exercise of compassion. (We can only imagine a future government panel pondering what constitutes compassion and whether all applicable diversity issues have been represented.)
Proponents scoff that we should calm down, that there’s no intention to harm private education. But experience proves that, over time, regulations invariably gain leverage - they don’t lose it. We also know that regulations can be invoked selectively and powerfully, depending on the ability of an offended group to press its case on a favored target.
It’s argued that more government oversight is needed because of the growth in for-profit and online education, which in turn could lead to fraudulent marketing or ethics violations. Yet actual allegations of wrongdoing have centered on about 15 schools, compared to the estimated 6,000 private institutions targeted for control under the new rules.
The remedy, as always, is to use existing laws to prosecute fraud and deceptive marketing practices. But to bind the entire system of private education - a hallmark of American liberty - to government meddling is akin to abolishing the First Amendment because one rabble-rouser yelled in a crowd to start throwing bombs.
Predictably, in an age of a 2,000-page health care bill, these dangerous regulations have advanced through the system with little public scrutiny. Time is running out. Contact your elected representatives and demand that the Obama administration kill Section 600.9 of the proposed Department of Education regulations, as well as all other regulatory hydras that threaten the freedom of private education.
Bill Armstrong, president of Colorado Christian University, is a former Republican U.S. senator from Colorado.