Journalism accreditor fires back at Northwestern after university opts out of review

The accrediting body for journalism schools on Wednesday essentially accused Northwestern University of fudging the facts in exiting the nonprofit overseer's once-every-six-years accreditation process.

The Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications responded to the surprise move by The Medill School of Journalism, Media and Integrated Marketing Communications with a diplomatic but firm rebuke of the school's rationale and honesty.

"Each school makes its own decision, and the Council is respectful of those decisions," it declared in a letter. "But a series of public comments made by the Medill dean earlier this week — in interviews with media outlets and in an email to alumni — contain factually incorrect and misleading statements. In the spirit of thorough, objective, fact-based journalism, we write to set the record straight."

The dean is Brad Hamm. Those seeking "to set a record straight" are Peter Bhatia, editor of the Cincinnati Enquirer and the president of the council, and the deans of the journalism schools at Arizona State University, Elon University, Penn State, Temple University and Louisiana State University.

The group dissects recent public declarations by Hamm in the manner that political reporters and others are reflexively analyzing President Trump's statements. And, clearly, the group thinks Hamm has not been fair or accurate:

  • The Chicago Tribune reported that, according to the dean, ACEJMC “[limits] the curriculum Medill could offer.” That is incorrect. The accrediting body imposes no limits on what coursework can be offered by a school, requiring only that students have a broad education beyond the journalism curriculum.
  • In the same interview, the Tribune reported that the dean believes the accrediting process “[restricts] the ability of students to take courses in different schools.” ACEJMC has no such limitations. In fact, accrediting standards facilitate broad education, and many students at accredited journalism programs are dual majors, dual-degree students and even triple majors.
  • The Daily Northwestern reported that the dean said he had concerns about the transparency of the accreditation process. The ACEJMC process is the most transparent accreditation in U.S. higher education. All meetings are open to the public (most of the annual ACEJMC meetings, in fact, are held in downtown Chicago, 12 miles from Medill), and all site team reports dating back to 2012-13 are available in full online on the ACEJMC website.
  • The dean, in an email to alumni, said that ACEJMC “resists change.” In fact, the accreditation process is reviewed by the Council each year, with changes — big and small — implemented regularly to ensure that accredited programs are current in a fast-changing digital environment. Had the dean attended our meeting in Chicago last weekend, he would have heard news of a new database made available to prospective students and their parents to compare programs, and endorsement of a proposal to reward programs that exhibit leadership in teaching digital-technology skills.
  • The dean also wrote in his email that no longer being accredited by ACEJMC “may affect the Hearst competition.” In fact, the Hearst Journalism Awards, widely considered the top intercollegiate journalism awards program in the country, is restricted to ACEJMC accredited programs. Medill students will no longer be able to compete in the Hearst Awards.
  • The dean was quoted in the Daily Northwestern as saying that the accreditation process requires “a tremendous amount of work.” It does. We believe a comprehensive self-study compiled by the schools under review, replete with hundreds of facts and data points, is essential to a thorough, fair and comprehensive review. Our concern for the amount of time spent on the process is far greater for small, underfunded programs than for large, well-funded programs such as Northwestern’s and others of similar size.
  • The dean said that he finds “little value” in the accreditation process. We believe one clear value is that it gives the school the ability — through an independent, objective, fact-based, data-driven comprehensive review — to provide evidence that could support statements such as “Medill has never been stronger.”

Hamm responded quickly, sharply and at length as he disputed the thrust of the criticisms, published in full below.

About 125 of 500 journalism programs (mostly in the U.S) have the accreditation that Medill is now spurning. There has long been debate about the process and the requirements, including the proper mix of professional skills training and a more generalist approach. Most elite journalism schools are formally accredited by the nonprofit body.

By virtue of its reputation within journalism education, the Medill move has brought instant attention and early discussion. It is far from clear at this point if it will have any substantive ramifications.

The letter concludes by damning with a certain faint praise, starting with its assumption that Hamm, "with deep consultation with the school’s faculty, staff, students, alumni and other stakeholders," arrived at a conclusion "he felt was best for his school."

The group asserts that it respects the decision and is in some fashion heartened by his indicating that the school will conduct its own review. But it then underscores that it thinks there's is inherently less there than meets the eye since "hiring evaluators to review a school is significantly less powerful than the assessment of a team of trained, independent evaluators using a set of standards applied uniformly across all accredited journalism programs."

It ends by turning Hamm's own words against him, at least in its view, noting that he believes that leaving the process if as reflection of necessary leadership.

"We would respectfully suggest that another way to lead would have been to work with ACEJMC, now in its 72nd year of journalism accreditation, to continue to improve the process on behalf of journalism education and the associated media industries."

Update: Hamm released a statement Wednesday evening responding to ACEJMC's critique.

I’m impressed with the speed with which ACEJMC responded to Medill’s exit, and I hope the momentum carries forward into much-needed reforms for accreditation. I have great respect for Chris, Jerry, David, Marie and my good friend Paul, as deans and individuals.

Overall, accreditation leaders are clearly aware of the issues raised by numerous schools about standards, site visits and leadership. The conversation is far broader than the case of Medill or Berkeley, or any one individual, and runs into the dozens of program leaders who have expressed concerns through surveys and other feedback that leadership can listen to or avoid.

To review the few points in the note, my thoughts on curriculum restrictions are based on how slow and reactive ACEJMC was during the crucial expansion of new technology, to liberate students to take far more credit hours outside of journalism and traditional arts and sciences. There are ‘inside baseball’ areas worthy of another discussion, but ACEJMC finally moved to a basic model that can work much better. Like most changes within the organization, it took far too long.

I hope ACEJMC will move beyond sympathy for the burden placed on programs in the review and have specific, intentional ways to help both small and large programs lessen this burden. Our issue with ACEJMC has always been the about the usefulness of the many pages and hours needed to complete the study — a constant source of complaint over the years.

Transparency is about providing students with data such as average debt load and many other statistics that can fit nicely into a new database. Transparency also is about the clear discussion of how some schools fail a standard and others pass with very similar results, a matter of fairness and equity, or why some schools are placed on provisional status with similar or better results than schools that are not.

I encourage ACEJMC’s leadership to focus on its current members rather than Medill or Berkeley, or me, and work to fix long-standing issues such as, for example, the assessment standard, where so many schools fail year after year.

I appreciate the invitation to the annual accreditation meeting last weekend in Chicago. I had a prior commitment. Over the weekend, I traveled to Doha and listened to the incredible, inspiring stories by our new graduates of the Northwestern Qatar journalism and communications program. It was a powerful example of students and professors working together

In the past few days, I have received dozens of notes and calls from professors and leaders from other schools saying they strongly support Medill’s stance and our recommendations for reform. Let’s keep this important national discussion started by Medill’s decision and build a much stronger and more valuable accreditation system for all the schools in our field.

Correction: An earlier version of this story used the wrong acronym once. It's ACEJMC, not AEJMC. It has been corrected. We apologize for the error.

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    James Warren

    New York City native, graduate of Collegiate School, Amherst College and Roosevelt University. Married to Cornelia Grumman, dad of Blair and Eliot. National columnist, U.S. News & World Report. Former managing editor and Washington Bureau Chief, Chicago Tribune.

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