Within the world of higher education, a few voices have recently been arguing that religious institutions should not be accredited. A recent example is an opinion piece published in June in the Chronicle of Higher Education.
In “The Great Accreditation Farce,” author Peter Conn says that “by awarding accreditation to religious colleges, the process confers legitimacy on institutions that systematically undermine the most fundamental purposes of higher education.” That purpose, he asserts, is “skeptical and unfettered inquiry,” which he believes is impossible at institutions where faith in God is a central tenet.
But the author ignores or misunderstands something that's very significant. In the United States and Canada, no single entity determines which schools are legitimate and which are not.
To be sure, in Canada, each province takes on a role similar to accrediting, but most U.S. states have only minimal requirements for educational institutions, and if a college or seminary meets them, they may offer degrees. The real teeth in the accrediting process comes not from the states, nor from the U.S. Department of Education or other federal agencies, but from accrediting bodies -- both the regional accrediting agencies (responsible for institutions in a particular multistate region) and the specialized professional accreditation agencies (like the Association of Theological Schools), which accredit institutions nationwide, and often in Canada as well. These accrediting agencies set and enforce educational standards.
The accrediting agencies are not top-down bureaucracies. Rather, they are membership organizations whose member schools set their requirements (while taking some cues from the U.S. Department of Education). Faculty members and administrative staff at these member schools actually serve as the staff members for accreditation visits at other schools.
This is a very powerful model because it demands buy-in from the member schools and empowers groups of schools to make changes in their own standards. Accrediting agencies are peer driven.
Because religious institutions have always been a significant part of higher education in North America, their voices are part of the mix and they participate in decision making about accreditation standards.
So while Professor Conn wants to silence the voices of religious institutions and kick them out of the club, he cannot. He doesn't get to choose which institutions are legitimate and which are not. That is for the institutions themselves to decide.