Lapse of Northwestern's accreditation sheds light on fast-moving world of journalism education
When Northwestern University's men's basketball team finally made it to the NCAA's "March Madness" for the first time this year, it was validation of the growth of its basketball program.
Now another part of the school is saying it doesn't need a traditional stamp of approval when it comes to validating success. Call it the Fleetwood Mac, or "Go Your Own Way" notion of academic self-approval.
The Medill School of Journalism, Media and Integrated Marketing Communications announced Tuesday that it's not seeking the once-every-six-years formal accreditation because it believes the process overseen by the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications (ACEJMC) is screwed-up and doesn't serve Medill's needs.
Medill is among the elite journalism programs, and at a yearly cost of about $70,000. Most of its peers generally seen as operating in the same realm do go through the process, including the programs at Columbia University, the University of Missouri and the University of Southern California.
The University of Wisconsin at Madison opted out of the system 25 years ago, seeing its focus on producing doctoral candidates as out of sync with the council aims.
In similar fashion, the University of California, Berkeley, recently decided to drop out of the process in a move its dean said was made in part because it enrolls only graduate students. That distinction is seen by some as a reason not to view the Medill's move as part of an incipient trend away from accreditation, even if it's too early to know the ultimate ramifications, if any.
Indeed, the council's multi-stage process finished in Chicago last week with its formal approval of 24 schools' accreditation. Not having gone through the process this time, Medill thus will allow accreditation that's been in place since 1987 simply lapse.
Medill Dean Brad Hamm told the Chicago Tribune that his move involved a variety of factors, including one stemming from rules on the percentage of journalism credits that must be part of a school's degree process. He finds those rules — a maximum of 48 credit hours out of 120 — to be restrictive when it comes to a student taking courses in other schools.
That's part and parcel of longstanding debates over what some might deem unreasonable restrictions on a school's curriculum, said Paul Voakes, who is chairman of the journalism department at the University of Colorado at Boulder and president of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communications (AEJMC).
Those debates include whether journalism programs offer a good proper mix of professional skills training and a more generalist approach. About 125 of 500 journalism programs (mostly in the U.S) have the accreditation that Medill is now spurning, Voakes said.
"Generally, from our perspective, we value accreditation," he said, referring to his university.
The reasons are both external and internal. There are, for example, a number of different constituencies a journalism program wants to have good standing with, such as prospective students, their families and future employers.
Internally, "We would like to think we are introspective by nature and can regularly and routinely look as a group into the mirror and assess our strengths and weaknesses, deciding how we want to move forward as an organization," said Voakes. The accreditation process assists such an impulse.
To many programs, but obviously not all, the frequently time-consuming process is part of a Good Housekeeping-like seal of approval as it examines various criteria, such as facilities, administration and governance, faculty research, quality of instruction and diversity.
But, some familiar with Hamm's thinking say, there is also a sense among some "big-time" programs, including Northwestern, that they should not have to heed the same once-every-six-year-ritual as those they deem of a different caliber.
Eric Kelderman, a senior reporter at the Chronicle of Higher Education who covers accreditation, explained the essential background for the underlying issue at hand. Accreditation serves two broad purposes for colleges and universities, he says: ensure the quality of an academic institution and its eligibility for financial aid.
There are two kinds of accreditation, he said, institutional and programmatic. Institutional accreditation is generally the kind that determined whether a college or university is eligible to receive financial aid. In this case, ACEJMC's accreditation is programmatic, purely for assessing the quality of the academic institution.
"So, while Northwestern dropping its j-school accreditation is unusual, it won’t have a big impact on the students that are studying in that program," he said, except for eligibility for an awards competition for students, the Hearst Awards.
And in many ways, the decision is not entirely surprising given the growing concerns about the costs and efficacy of accreditation in higher education.
"For many years, college leaders have complained that the existing practices of accreditation are outdated, focused too much on 'inputs' such as faculty salaries and credentials, facilities, curriculum, etc. and too little on 'outputs' such as what students are or should be learning," Kelderman said. "In addition, several top-tier institutions would like the process to be streamlined since they are, by most measures, clearly meeting the accreditor’s standards."
Peter Bhatia, the editor of the Cincinnati Enquirer and president of the accreditation council, thinks Northwestern is making a mistake since the process "ensures so much for schools and students. It's the students who will suffer."
The process "ensures a rich curriculum, a well-rounded experience outside the journalism school and puts in place some rigorous standards as to how a journalism education should be conducted," he said.
Those curriculum standards includes limiting the number of students who can be in a skills class, so instruction can be as personal as possible, and requirements for how many classes can be taken in the major and how many outside.
"So it encouraged students being well-rounded, allowing schools to have more digital courses and taking classes in a variety of disciplines," said Bhatia. "Some of the criticism we receive is that we discourage innovation. The opposite is true."
Indeed, he says, it's part of why the group has relaxed rules about how many units have to be taken outside the major. That's in part to allow more digital instruction and pursuit of courses in public relations and advertising, among other topics. "We have responded to schools' desire for more room to maneuver."
There is, of course, a giant difference between Northwestern's basketball team and Medill: There's no tournament for the team without the de facto "accreditation" (selection by) the NCAA. Medill very likely will continue to be a success and heralded, regardless.
"The only question I'd have for them is whether there are still funding institutions requiring accreditation in order to do grant-making," said Merrill Brown, who helped to start and ran the School of Communication and Media at New Jersey's Montclair State University the last five years until his recent departure.
Some deans and faculty around the nation will maintain that the whole process helped them construct a review and planning process that was worthwhile, Brown said. But not everyone thinks that way.
It's reasonable to think that newer schools seeking affirmation of their work would need accreditation much more than Northwestern," says Brown.
Ultimately, lack of accreditation by ACEJMC won't have a negative effect, Hamm said.
"Many schools choose not to be accredited," he said. "In my experience, accreditation has never had an impact on enrollments, faculty hiring, fundraising or any other area."
Correction: The original story did not indicate that the University of California, Berkeley, had dropped out of the accreditation process recently, in part citing its focus on graduate students.
It also indicated that the University of Pennsylvania is among elite journalism programs that are accredited. The program there is in "communications" and not part of the journalism accreditation process. A similarly named Annenberg program at the University of Southern California, which was not initially referenced, is in journalism and does take part in the process.
Correction: An earlier version of this story used the wrong acronym. It's ACEJMC, not AEJMC. We're corrected it and apologize for the error.