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Medill Just Says No To Accreditation

McCormick Journalism Center entrance to Fisk Hall, Northwestern University
Fisk Hall, Evanston, Ill. Photo by Brian Keegan (Madcoverboy).

My younger daughter attended the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications – Northwestern University’s journalism program.

Medill was, and is, an excellent program, and I was pleased with the education she received there. But now, unlike when my daughter attended, it is not accredited by the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications. Do I care that Northwestern’s journalism program is no longer accredited – and would I have cared had the school taken this step before I paid a substantial sum to send a daughter there?

Not a bit.

The Chicago Tribune reported last week that Medill chose not to pursue accreditation renewal this year. Officials from the ACEJMC met April 28 to issue final accreditation decisions for schools under review; from that point on, Medill has been unaccredited. Medill’s dean, Bradley Hamm, made clear that the decision was meant as a rebuke to the current accreditation process, calling it “sort of a low bar” and arguing that it fails at its stated purpose of improving the journalism programs under review.

“It’s relatively superficial, extremely time-consuming and doesn’t lead us to a goal of significant improvement,” Hamm said.

Hamm has further said that Medill will design its own review process, one that will involve students and outside journalism professionals. He assured students, prospective students and parents that opting out of the process did not mean the program wanted to avoid scrutiny; on the contrary, its administrators wanted a more rigorous process than that of accreditation in its current form.

Medill is the second high-profile program to opt out of the ACEJMC recently; the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley also stepped away. While that school’s dean was slightly more diplomatic than Hamm, noting that Berkeley’s program was meant for graduate students only and that accreditation might be more valuable for undergraduates, he also observed that the school was capable of rigorous self-examination and suggested the accreditation process offered little in the way of student benefit.

Years before I sent my daughter to Chicago, I attended the University Of Montana School Of Journalism, which was then accredited by the ACEJ. (The extra initials came later.) I subsequently served on an alumni and industry advisory board for the school for 15 years. Do I think Montana’s journalism school would suffer if it followed Medill’s lead?

That’s a tough question. Northwestern will have no trouble attracting top students, regardless of its journalism school’s status. The university is still a top-tier institution, and because it is accredited as a whole, students who attend still have access to federal student loans. Medill will benefit from Northwestern’s overall reputation going forward. But a small professional program in an out-of-the-way place like Montana might suffer for choosing to forgo accreditation, especially in light of the increasingly fierce competition for out-of-state students, whose higher tuition helps keep the lights on.

Still, accreditation deserves whatever pushback it gets. As Richard Vedder, a Northwestern alumnus who now teaches at Ohio University, recently put it while praising Medill’s decision, accreditation has become “an expensive barrier to entry, that does little to improve quality but impedes innovation, restricts competition and raises costs.” Sen. Marco Rubio flagged accreditation as a reform target during his presidential run last summer, and other politicians – as well as alumni, outside observers and even some faculty and administrators – have for years pointed out that the system does little for the students whose interests it is supposed to serve.

Medill – and UC Berkeley’s journalism school – should be commended for resisting the status quo. I have no doubt that Medill students will continue to receive an excellent education, although they will lose the opportunity to compete in the prestigious Hearst Journalism Awards Program going forward. Still, this loss is more than offset by the fact their administrators would rather spend their time and energy on making the school’s academic offerings stronger, rather than simply appearing to do so for the accreditors’ benefit.

I am well aware of the hoops through which schools must jump to keep their accreditation. I am familiar with some of the standards the accreditors seek to impose, including racial diversity, that have nothing to do with the overall quality of the training they offer. Moreover, the accrediting bodies in a rapidly changing field like journalism severely underrepresent the field as it exists today, or as it may exist when today’s graduates are working. For instance, a large slice of people today get most of their news from “The Daily Show” or shows headed by its various former correspondents, and the appropriate standards of accuracy and fairness for such programming is a legitimate subject for professional inquiry and training. But I don’t expect to see producers from such outlets represented in journalism accrediting panels any time soon.

Congratulations to Medill and its dean for taking the first step in accreditation reform by just saying no. It reflects the school’s emphasis on the needs of students, rather than those of faculty and administrators, that I noticed when my daughter was in that program. I hope other programs at other schools, and not only in journalism, will find their way clear to follow suit. If they do so in large enough numbers, even programs like Montana’s will be able to join the movement.

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