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Panel Puts Off Vote on Recognition of Accrediting Agency

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WASHINGTON--Concerned about a critical Education Department report and Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander's suggestion that significant changes be made in the college-accrediting process, officials of the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools last week persuaded a federal advisory committee to delay a vote on whether to renew the association's federal recognition.

Although a hearing on the renewal of the association, which requires institutions to meet a "cultural diversity'' standard, took place as scheduled last Thursday and Friday, the panel agreed not to vote on its recommendation until January.

Panel members granted the postponement in order to give the accrediting body a chance to review the department's 28-page staff report, which had been made available to the group only three days before the hearing and not until repeated requests had been made by the association.

Middle States officials also said they wanted time to reply to a letter Mr. Alexander sent to Martin Trow, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley who is chairman of the advisory committee.

'Pass' System Put Forward

In the letter, dated Nov. 14, the Secretary reiterated his well-publicized concerns over the diversity standard and suggested that the committee explore possible long-term changes in the accrediting process.

Among such changes, the letter said, could be creation of "a 'pass' that would allow the large majority of postsecondary institutions-those which all responsible observers would agree should be eligible-automatically to participate in the federal student-aid programs."

"The effect of such a pass would, for most colleges and universities, be to eliminate accreditation as a mandatory condition for eligibility for federal financial aid," the letter noted.

Currently, institutions must be approved by an accrediting body in order to participate in federal financial-aid programs. The accrediting agency must be recognized by the Secretary, who receives recommendations from the National Advisory Committee on Accreditation and Institutional Eligibility.

Last April, Mr. Alexander ordered the panel to further review Middle States' request for recognition after the committee deferred a final decision in November 1990.

The Philadelphia-based Middle States Association's Commission on Higher Education accredits colleges in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands.

The department's staff report echoed many of Mr. Alexander's concerns over the diversity standard, which requires the faculty, administration, and governing beards of institutions to reflect the racial, gender, and ethnic diversity of the student body and surrounding community.

Imposing a Mission?

The document accused Middle States of coercing institutions into meeting its diversity standards, inflinging on the autonomy of several institutions, and raising doubts about its accreditation decisions.

"An accrediting agency is to judge a school against its own educational mission, not to impose on the school a 'mainstream' mission chosen by" Middle States, the report said in urging a one-year provisional recognition.

At a news conference here last week, Howard L. Simmons, the executive director of Middle States, and several commission members said that the staff report contains significant errors. They said that the diversity standard was approved by all 509 member institutions and is used to ensure that all students receive a high-quality education.

Mr. Simmons cited the difficulty of obtaining the staff report--it was faxed to him by a Washington lawyer who called the department a week before the hearing to ask if it was available--Mr. Alexander's unwillingness to meet with him, and his awareness of the advisory committee's decision to delay a vote on Middle States only after reading The New York Times as evidence that the association was not being treated fairly.

"I deplore the kind of treatment this agency has received from the department," he said. "I have been with this agency for 17 years and never in my life have I experienced the kind of thing we're going through now."

In a letter to Steven Pappas, executive director of the advisory committee, Mr. Simmons also questioned the objectivity of the staff report, saying it was significantly altered after review by high- level Education Department officials.

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