Last Thursday here at HLSwatch Dr. Matthew J. Blackwood argued, “A standard curriculum and accreditation process for under-graduate and graduate programs focusing on homeland security will assure quality control.” Read his blogpost and related comments here.
I am opposed to a standardized curriculum and skeptical about quality “control” in higher education, but enthusiastic regarding the potential for accreditation. Accreditation usually does not — and to my way of thinking, should not — imply a standardized curriculum.
Others commenting on Dr. Blackwood’s blogpost have suggested it would be premature to settle into a standardized curriculum. I concur. Moreover, reading Dr. Blackwood leaves me doubting tight standardization is what he was meaning to suggest. The exemplar he offers is the Accrediting Board of Engineering and Technology (ABET). Quick references were made to other professional accrediting bodies. In each of the professions he points to there is a diversity of curricula and a track record of educational innovation.
The American tradition of higher education accreditation is federalist — even individualist — in its values. It seeks to cultivate comity and mutual respect through institutional transparency and explicit communication. As explained by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), “The higher education enterprise and our society thrive on decentralization and diversity of institutional purpose and mission.” Different institutions or different programs within institutions can pursue considerably different purposes and missions and still be accredited.
Fundamental to accreditation is clarity of vision, mission, and purpose while demonstrating coherence and consistency in executing vision, mission, and purpose.
Demonstration of coherence and consistency is achieved through programmatic self-study and peer review. The internal process of periodic self-study encourages faculty, administrators, students, and others to take seriously their program’s stated vision, mission, and purpose. The external and usually collaborative process of peer review encourages both accountability and the cross-breeding of good ideas across the field. More on these processes are available from a CHEA document entitled: An Overview of US Accreditation.
Precisely because homeland security is a still emerging and ill-defined profession a meaningful process of accreditation could be immensely helpful. Accreditation — properly undertaken — encourages communication, collaboration, and ongoing consultation between and among a range of institutions and programs. Too many so-called HS programs are, as Dr. Blackwood noted, retreads of preexisting academic offerings. Accreditation would discourage this. There is a lack of discussion regarding vision, mission, and purpose. The accreditation process should encourage much more serious attention to these foundations.
In most of the world educational quality assurance is a governmental function focused on minimum equivilencies. In the United States private accreditation arose as a voluntary process of self-improvement and mutual consultation. When mindfully and honestly engaged (not always the case, it is true), accreditation encourages diversity and confidence in the value of diversity.
Accreditation empowers innovation by asking innovators to be explicit regarding their goals. The innovators are then required to defend their plans, processes, and procedures for achieving the goals to those with an ability to ask probing questions.
In the vast majority of cases, accreditation is a process that encourages self-correction around each program’s unique sources of meaning.
In the long-run the nation’s security and liberty would very much benefit from a serious and sustained argument over the vision, mission, and purpose of homeland security. This is unlikely to occur — and could be unwise to principally occur — within the Department of Homeland Security. The accreditation process can provide a conducive national setting for practitioners, academics, policy-makers, private citizens, and others to engage in inquiry, exploration, and rigorous mutual recognition of different — but equally valid — visions, missions, and purposes for homeland security.