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Does U.S. Accreditation Mean American-Style Academic Freedom?

Accreditation by U.S. agencies is a prize that many universities in the Arab world have sought in recent years, a prize that allows them to sell students from the region on getting an education at U. S. standards closer to home and at a lower cost.

But could that prize have a price—the risk of losing accreditation if autocratic Arab regimes tighten up, academic freedom slips, and accreditation gets pulled?

Accreditation in the United States is carried out by agencies responsible for different regions of the country, some of which have recently ventured overseas to accredit foreign universities. All of the U.S. accreditation agencies have at least some academic freedom guidelines. “The success of American higher education, including the high regard in which it is held worldwide, is explained in good measure by the observance of academic freedom,” said an October 2012 statement of the American Association of University Professors and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.

A recent incident in the United Arab Emirates put that emphasis on academic freedom into focus. A conference co-organized by the London School of Economics and the American University of Sharjah was set to be held in the Emirates in February, then cancelled after the government insisted that a presentation about Bahrain be dropped. The London School of Economics called off the conference “in response to restrictions imposed on the intellectual content of the event that threatened academic freedom.”

After the conference was cancelled, the government blocked a London School of Economics research fellow who had planned to speak at the event from entering the Emirates.

The American University of Sharjah is accredited by the Middle States Association, which accredits a total of 15 universities outside the United States, including the American University in Cairo and the American University of Beirut.

“The Commission is not planning any action against the American University of Sharjah as the result of the recent controversy over a planned conference,” said Richard J. Pokrass, director of communications and public relations in an e-mail. “The Commission recognizes that there are cultural differences between the U.S. and other countries, and therefore, the Commission expects foreign-based institutions to operate within the norms of their home country.”

Typically, he said, guest speakers are expected to comply with “the cultural norms of the host country.”

“This was an act of the federal government of the UAE, not of the AUS,” said John Waterbury, former president of the American University of Beirut, who has been teaching this semester at the NYU Abu Dhabi campus.

Such rationales don’t sit well with Cary Nelson, former president of the American Association of University Professors, an English professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and the author of No University is an Island: Saving Academic Freedom. “If you can’t speak forthrightly about political affairs in what you feel are strongly principled and moral terms,” he said in an interview, “then academic freedom doesn’t really exist.”

Accreditation agencies, he said, should be tougher with overseas institutions about academic-freedom requirements. “Either you have your standards and you adhere to them wherever you’re talking about,” he said, “or you compromise the homeland’s standards as well. That is to say: It is completely corrupting for an American institution or an American accrediting agency to have a double standard.”

Under dictator Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian government banned hundreds of titles from the American University in Cairo’s library and bookstore for political, sexual and religiously offensive content. In Beirut, Waterbury faced a case where a member of the university community was potentially subject to criminal charges due to suspicions of a homosexual act. (While homosexuality is not illegal in Lebanon, homosexual acts are.)

Such instances are “just part of doing business here,” said Waterbury, and “something that I think any president, any administration, of a Western-style institution is going to face – maybe not often, but pretty predictably.” Operating in a part of the world where government policies periodically conflict with Western values of a full range of freedoms is “a constant tussle.”

The Arab region is not alone in restricting the movements of academics. The prominent Muslim scholars, Tariq Ramadan and Adam Habib, were barred from entering the United States, although the ban was lifted in 2010. Habib was refused entry for involvement in “terrorist activities,” and Ramadan initially was banned on the murky grounds of the “ideological exclusion” provision of the U.S. Patriot Act, a post-9/11 law often criticized for placing security above basic freedoms.

If government policies or specific cases challenge higher educational ideals such as academic freedom, accreditors should look at how universities are achieving desired outcomes, suggests Barbara Brittingham, director and president of the Commission on Institutions of Higher Education of the New England Association of Schools and Colleges. The commission has accredited the Lebanese American University, in Beirut, and has granted candidacy to Al Akhawayn University in Morocco.

In Kuwait, for example, the law requires gender segregation at the undergraduate level at least for the first few years. This would prove problematic for the New England Association, which is interested in having students learn from each other, Brittingham said.

“It’s an aspect of American-style higher education, so in looking at any institution in Kuwait, the commission would want to know that the university had found ways to accomplish that,” she said. “They have to obey the law but are there ways to accomplish the opportunities for students to learn from each other inside and outside the classroom?”

U.S. accreditors may assume that the government protects academic freedom, said Jason Lane, director of education studies at the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government at the State University of New York at Albany.

“I think [accreditors] are just now beginning to wrestle with the idea of: How do you accredit an institution in a foreign country that may not have the same rules, protections, assumptions, beliefs about academic freedom?” Lane said. “I think it does create tensions.”

“The case with the AUS is a very good one in that even though the university may say, ‘academic freedom exists here,’ the government curtails that… And so, to what extent should the accreditor hold the institution responsible for the actions of the government?”

Similar to Middle States, the New England Association expects academic freedom. Government policies that are too restrictive could, theoretically, jeopardize a university’s accreditation, Brittingham said, but it would depend on what happened in a particular instance, and how significant it was, she said.

Steve Parscale, director of accreditation at the Accreditation Council for Business Schools and Programs, which has accredited the Business and Economics Division at the American University of Kuwait and various colleges in the Emirates, said a particular government policy in question would have to come to the attention of the board of commissioners, which would review the government regulations against the council’s standards and criteria. If a law restricted academic freedom too much, the board would probably place an institution on probation. If the issue could not be resolved with the government within one year, there would be potential for withdrawal of accreditation.

The Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, or ABET, has accredited over 3,100 programs across the globe including six degree programs at the American University of Sharjah.

President Karan Watson said that the accreditation board focuses on ensuring that professors within specific programs are free to teach their expertise to students in the appropriate classes, she said. Still, Watson can imagine a scenario where the engineering accreditation board decides not to award accreditation because government policies regarding expression or academic freedoms are too strict. “But it would still be have to be linked to the educational program that we are there to accredit and how it is a disturbance to the students in preparing them for that profession,” she said.

Lane advocates that accreditation agencies open offices abroad in order to better understand the environments and cultures in which universities are working. “The closer we are to understanding the on-the-ground reality, the more accurate we can be in our assessment of accreditation and quality assurance,” Lane said.

Both accreditors and universities seem to be cognizant of challenges various environments can pose. Middle States is not taking any more candidates for overseas accreditation although it will continue to accredit the institutions already in the pipeline, said Pokrass, in part because of the heavy workload foreign institutions impose.

Before Texas A&M University opened a branch campus in Doha, the university worked carefully to decide if its presence there would be beneficial, and if there was enough alignment with the values the university treasures, said the accreditation board’s Watson, who is also provost of Texas A&M. In light of any possible challenges, the university decided it was worthwhile to operate abroad.

“ABET looks at this a lot in the same way and says, ‘Yes, we’re influencing – in a positive way – a global, interactive culture that accepts many differences,’” Watson said. “We think it helps us move in a better direction than when we’re isolated from each other.”

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