News: CCU Statement on Proposed Accreditation Changes

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CCU President Addresses U.S. Department of Education

Colorado Christian University President Dr. Donald W. Sweeting addressed the Negotiated Rule-making Committee of the U.S. Department of Education during a public hearing in Washington, D.C., about proposed changes to the Higher Learning Commission's standards for accreditation. Dr. Sweeting highlighted concerns over the proposed removal of language requiring an accrediting body to take into account an institution's specific and diverse mission — religious or otherwise — when assessing its commitment to diversity. The full text of Dr. Sweeting's remarks is below:

(Dr. Donald W. Sweeting): CCU is a Christian university in Lakewood, Colorado, just outside of Denver, that enrolls over 8,000 students and employs 350 faculty and staff. Our mission since 1914 has been to provide Christ-centered higher education transforming students to impact the world with grace and truth. CCU offers over 100 bachelor's and master's degree programs, and the University's core curriculum is ranked in the top 2% of colleges nationwide by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.

Today I wish to speak about the importance of accrediting agencies honoring an institution's specific mission in the accreditation process. But before speaking to this issue, I would like to make two points. First, I am grateful for the opportunity to speak today about issues that face colleges and universities. Thank you for holding these hearings.

Second, I want it known that we do value accreditation and believe it sharpens schools like ours as we seek to train students. We are accredited by the Higher Learning Commission (HLC). Their assessment guidelines and information about best practices have helped us strengthen the University's effectiveness. The HLC Academy, of which we are a part, has been very supportive and has given us both a framework for what a healthy university looks like, and an opportunity to network with other universities.

However, I do come today with a deep concern about a recent HLC 'Alpha Document' which proposes changes to HLC's standards for accreditation.

The new suggested changes would remove language that requires the accrediting body to take into account each institution's specific and diverse mission — religious or otherwise — when assessing an institution's commitment to diversity.

Previously, the Higher Learning Commission clearly acknowledged that schools necessarily differ in their diversity policies and procedures. The original guidelines stated that each school should act "as appropriate within its mission and for the constituencies it serves." Now, this crucial provision is targeted for deletion.

By striking this language, certain institutions could face negative repercussions with regard to their accreditation simply for being true to their religious mission.

This federally empowered agency's new draft protocol gives itself the prerogative to decide whether a school sufficiently "ensures inclusive and equitable treatment of diverse populations." By law, this agency can cut off federal student loans and grants at any "noncompliant" school by withdrawing accreditation.

We view these proposed wording changes as not only a powerful threat to religious liberty, but also a breaking of trust with the Higher Education Act, which guarantees respect for the religious missions of schools.

What would make these agencies believe that it is appropriate to tamper with the religious principles of Christian institutions that long ago proved their academic merit? The nature of HLC's proposed changes threatens not only religious institutions, but also the autonomy of all colleges and universities within its jurisdiction.

One of the strengths of American higher education — and a big reason it has long been the envy of the world -- is that it has not been shoehorned into a uniform system. American higher education has grown organically from communities and visionaries, reflecting our country's independence of thought. Yet now it is, once again, precisely this independence of thought that is at risk.

We are asking HLC to restore the original enabling language in the accreditation standards before these proposed changes are adopted.

We are encouraged that the Department of Education is considering respecting institutional mission and reducing barriers for faith-based institutions a priority so that standards don't interfere with the faith base of institutions. We ask the Department to communicate the importance of this to all accrediting agencies.

We also ask the Department of Education to clarify what it means for accrediting agencies to respect religious mission, because there is no precise definition of religious mission or what it means to respect religious mission. This lack of definition leaves accrediting bodies open to reach a different understanding of what this means, interpreting it so narrowly that it threatens religious schools.

We believe the Department of Education should provide a definition like that in the PROSPER Act: where the term 'religious mission' includes an institution of higher education's religious tenets, beliefs, or teachings, and any policies or decisions related to them (in areas of housing, employment, curriculum, self-governance, student admission, continuing enrollment, or graduation).

Furthermore, we ask the Department to clarify how it will enforce the requirement for accrediting agencies to respect religious mission. Surely, we do not wish to threaten the existence of the many colleges and universities in our country that are convictionally faith-based. Their contribution to our nation is immense. They have a long record to prove it. They, in fact, laid the foundation for all higher education in America.