Why the Higher Learning Commission Has the Wrong Measure for “Qualified Faculty”?

If you are a higher education institution seeking to gain or keep up regional accreditation, one of the many expectations is that you have “qualified faculty.” What do people mean by that? I’m fascinated with this question because US regional accrediting agencies seem to be stuck in a past age and are answering that question in a way that risks undermining the goal of Universities as places with the “best” faculty (especially for more applied fields) while also adding a challenges in the competition higher education institutions get from education providers beyond traditional academia. Just as we start reading about news like the University of Microsoft, LinkedIn meets Lynda.com and alternative paths to expertise, regional accreditors are perhaps unknowingly making sure Universities are at a disadvantage.

Answers to the question give us insight into fundamental beliefs and values related to higher education. They help us understand whether certain stakeholders, like regional accreditors, are more interested in maintaining things as they are, or true educational innovation and determining the extent to which a person has adequate expertise to teach a given course on the college level.

Consider the follow excerpts from a 2014 Higher Learning Commission document on guidelines for determining qualified faculty:

Faculty teaching in higher education institutions should have completed a program of study in the discipline or subfield in which they will teach, and/or for which they will develop curricula, with coursework at least one level above that of the courses being taught or developed. Successful completion of a coherent degree better prepares a person than an unstructured collection of credit courses.

Qualified faculty are identified primarily by credentials, but other factors may be considered in addition to the degrees earned.

Elsewhere, they mention that alternatives to credentials should be the exception, not the norm. What does this mean? The document goes on to further explain that the largely non-negotiable or standard measure for faculty qualification comes down to credentials. If you teach a MBA finance course, then you should have substantive coursework completed in finance on the doctoral level. If you are teaching an undergraduate course in entrepreneurship, it is nice that you started a dozen successful businesses, but the standard should normally focus instead of whether you have a graduate degree or substantive graduate coursework completed in entrepreneurship. If you are teaching creative writing on the master’s level, show me your doctoral work in creative writing. Yes, maybe you’ve published several award-winning pieces of fiction or served as senior editor at one of the top publishing houses in the world, but the credentials are the non-negotiable part. This makes complete sense for many who live in academia and depend upon it for their livelihood. It doesn’t make nearly as much sense beyond the walls of higher education. Maybe doctoral work in finance is valuable for a CFO, but what we really want is hard evidence that a prospective CFO knows her stuff and can do the job. As Google started to publicize in 2013 after conducting a study, GPA and credentials don’t cut it when trying to find the best people.

A standard like this sets up Universities to maintain accreditation by having wonderfully credentialed people who may or may not provide evidence that they can use or apply their knowledge and skill in contexts beyond the ivory tower. This doesn’t do much when it comes to showing society the deep value and relevance of higher education. We do that partly by filling it with faculty/mentors who are deeply knowledgable and skilled in their various disciplines (and in teaching/mentoring), not by lifting up the value of credentialism, the notion of protecting a profession by having strict requirements for certain credentials…perhaps even over the value of having the most truly qualified people. Even as I interact with more employers who are realizing that the credential is less valuable than demonstrable knowledge and skill, higher education accreditors are pushing back, insisting that faculty not simply be deeply qualified, but that faculty prove their qualifications in a very narrow way (show me that piece of paper). Yes, even as paths to expertise widen and vary, accreditors narrow the path to professor.

While some argue this maintains a high academic standard and protects the students, it seems far more focused on protecting the beloved traditional role of the professorate from sometimes more qualified people. “If I had to jump through certain academic hoops to become a professor, then the next generation should have to do the same.” Yet, we are in a new generation, a connected world where there are more options for ongoing learning and professional development than ever before. And like past generations, it remains true that some of the most skilled and knowledgable people in many disciplines and areas of study do not have significant credentials.

We only need to look at the exceptions to see why the enforcement of a credential approach to faculty qualifications is inadequate in some fields of study. Consider people like Joseph Blatt, who is the Faculty Director of the Technology, Innovation and Education graduate program at Harvard Graduate School of Education, but only lists a master’s degree on his vitae. I have no doubt that he is superbly qualified for the job, but the regional accrediting guidelines say that the Jo Blatt’s should only be the exceptions. Why? Would graduates of Harvard Graduate School walk away with a sub-par degree if most or nearly all the faculty with whom they took courses demonstrated their competence in ways like Blatt? Of course not. Beyond this one instance, history and modern times are full of faculty who are remarkably qualified apart from meeting the credential standard set out above, and the connected world will continue to make these “exceptions” more commonplace. If we really want higher education institutions to be beacons of high-impact learning and the pinnacle of excellence in various ares of study, why would we limit the pool of potential faculty by credentials…unless our interest has more to do with protecting the status of credentials?

Answers to this question about how to decide if faculty are qualified also give us a glimpse into the extent to which higher education institutions are given a disadvantage in competition with the growing number of educational offerings outside of higher education, companies and organizations that are not bound by standards from regional accreditors or the U.S. Department of Education (at least in the United States). Consider open courses, online tutorials, online live tutors and mentors, training resources, education workshops and conferences, webinars, professional certifications, conferences, and similar learning opportunities. Few of these pay as much attention to the formal credentials of the teacher as they do to the quality of the learning experiences and the outcomes of the learner. While some of these, like MOOCs, do still often rely on traditionally credentialed people, many of the others do not. Their value and the demand for what they offer depends upon whether they deliver on what they offer. Do people get what they need and want out of it. Does the education work or truly help people learn what they need to learn? That is a far more direct measure than whether the person who designed the webinar or learning experience has certain letters behind her name. Especially when it comes to lifelong learning and graduate programming, these other forms of education have the upper hand. They have full access to the larger pool of deeply qualified content designers and facilitators, where higher education institutions are only limited to the highest credentialed people.

In fact, even academia doesn’t look at credentials when it comes to judging the quality of research in peer-reviewed publications and conferences. If a person produced great research, it is possible for a high school drop out to beat out a PhD for a presentation spot at a place like the American of Education Research Association conference. The measure is the quality of your work, not your collection of credentials.

Look ahead a decade. Which one do you think will win out in the competition for the time, investment and attention of 21st century lifelong learners, the unregulated education providers or the highly regulated higher education institutions? Even with new experiments and innovations like competency-based education programs, accreditors seem focused on the legacy approach to measuring faculty qualifications. It appears that higher education institutions are free to innovate as long as they do so in the nicely prescribed box outlined by aging standards and processes that put them at a disadvantage in the larger education landscape. My concern is that restrictions like this might leave more higher education institutions watching much of the education action on the sidelines, staring longingly behind unnecessary fences set by outside agencies and organizations.