Education Department Asks Accreditor to Revisit a Curriculum Review

In June, the Education Department warned the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools’ Commission on Colleges, a regional accreditor, that it had failed to follow federal rules in reviewing changes in Northern Kentucky University’s general-education curriculum.

The accreditor replied in July, explaining that the commission either met the regulations or had corrected the problems. But the department has determined that the commission is still not in compliance with some rules and is asking the accreditor to further deal with its concerns by January 12. While the department could eventually impose sanctions that limit or remove the commission’s status as a federally recognized accrediting body, such punitive measures are unlikely.

The department’s original complaints were that Northern Kentucky’s general-education requirements did not meet the commission’s own standards and that the accreditor had not fully evaluated changes in the curriculum to determine if the university had enough qualified faculty members for the new course requirements.

In addition, the commission had not responded adequately to initial complaints from some faculty about the new curriculum, the department said.

The department accepted the commission’s response that it had changed policies to ensure that it responds properly to future complaints from faculty or others, and that it had sufficiently reviewed the qualifications of faculty.

But the department was not convinced that Northern Kentucky’s new general-education requirements met the commission’s standards. At issue is whether students could complete the requirements without taking a course in the humanities or fine arts, as the commission requires in its own standards. The department says Northern Kentucky’s new requirements might, for example, allow a student to take two foreign-language courses, which do not qualify as humanities courses.

In its July letter, the commission responded that such a problem was not unique to Northern Kentucky’s new general-education program. "The issue is not the construction of the general-education program; rather, it is the implementation of it, which can only be done with adequate faculty advising," said the July letter to the Education Department.

Department officials said, however, that "ensuring compliance … ought not to be solely reliant on quality faculty advising."

"Contrary to the agency’s response, the issue … in the case of NKU is inherently with the construction of the general-education program," the department wrote.

Federal officials also were not convinced that the commission had used the correct process to review the new curriculum. It should have been treated as a "substantive change," the department said, defined as "the addition of courses or programs that represent a significant departure from the existing offerings of educational programs."

The department wrote that the accreditor determined the new general-education program was "not a significant departure," but it was clear from the university’s own descriptions that the new curriculum was the result of a "concerted and systematic effort to implement a wholly new general-education program."

Belle S. Wheelan, president of the commission, told The Chronicle that the organization had "just received the letter Friday and was still trying to digest it" and will be sending a response to the department by the January deadline.

THE CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION

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