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Despite Controversy, Group Urges Recognition for Accrediting Agency

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WASHINGTON--A federal advisory panel last week called for continued federal recognition for the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools' Commission on Higher Education, despite that regional accrediting agency's controversial policy of requiring colleges and universities to meet a cultural-diversity standard.

The National Advisory Committee on Institutional Accreditation and Eligibility recommended that the recognition be extended only for four years, rather than the usual five, however, and imposed additional reporting requirements on the commission.

Under the recommendation, the Education Department would require Middle States to submit annual reports on any actions taken against postsecondary institutions because of the diversity standard.

In response to one specific incident, the federal advisory panel also urged that the commission be required to report on any future conflict-of-interest problems.

The advisory committee's recommendation, passed by a 6-to-2 vote with two abstentions, will now be forwarded to Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander, who will make the final decision on federal recognition for the agency.

A department spokesman said it may take up to four months for the Secretary to make the decision, although a Middle States official said Mr. Alexander has promised a quick reply.

Federal recognition is critical because colleges and universities must receive accreditation by a federally approved agency to participate in federal student-financial-aid programs. The Middle States commission accredits 505 member schools in the mid-Atlantic states.

Diversity Standard Clarified

Mr. Alexanders decision will culminate months of political uproar over the diversity standard, which caused the Secretary last April to remand the Middle States application for recognition back to the advisory committee for further study. (See Education Week, Nov. 27, 1991 .)

The standard requires colleges and universities to bring more gender and racial equity to their governing boards, professoriates, and student bodies.

Several members of the federal advisory panel cited changes recently approved by Middle States in the diversity standard as the basis for their willingness to recommend recognition. In December, the Middle States membership adopted language stating that an institution cannot lose accreditation solely on the basis of failing to meet a diversity standard and that such standards will be developed by each institution in accordance with its mission.

"That mission-centeredness is crucial," said Sister Mary Andrew Matesich, a member of the federal panel.

Middle States officials were pleased with the result.

"Over time, we've tried to clarify our position, and given the vote today I think we've been at least partially successful," said Carolyn Press Landis, the vice chairman of the Middle States Commission on Higher Education.

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