The current president of Oglethorpe University in Atlanta will jump into the field of accreditation.
Lawrence M. Schall will be the next president of the New England Commission of Higher Education, the accreditor announced Wednesday. The move ties up the next steps for two leaders who’d previously announced departures from their current jobs. Schall said last year that he planned to step down this summer as Oglethorpe’s president, while NECHE’s president, Barbara Brittingham, announced in September that she planned to retire in July.
It will be a big change for both. Schall has led Oglethorpe for 15 years and is credited with bolstering the future of the private college, which had been struggling. Brittingham has been with NECHE since 2000, serving as its president since 2006.
This moment is one of changes for accreditation. The coronavirus pandemic prompted the Department of Education to temporarily accept accreditation for brick-and-mortar programs that transitioned to distance education in the middle of the semester. New rules allow regional accreditors to accredit colleges and universities outside their home areas.
Meanwhile, private colleges’ and universities’ financial viability is of high concern as the pandemic exacerbates pre-existing enrollment pressures, particularly in New England. That’s an important development for NECHE, which has found itself at the center of discussions over when information about struggling colleges should be made public, particularly as Massachusetts last year put in place a new law intended to stave off unexpected college closures.
Schall and Brittingham took questions in separate phone interviews about the changes, the state of accreditation and the future of NECHE. The conversations are below, edited for clarity and length.
Lawrence M. Schall
Q: What attracted you to this job at this moment?
A: It wasn’t because I didn’t like being president of Oglethorpe. It was because I really wanted to look for a sort of broader platform where I can continue to be engaged with the big issues around higher education, but on a broader scale. I made the decision to leave without a job -- without knowing what that platform would be or whether I’d find it.
I’ve got a good friend who leads a pretty prominent institution in the Northeast who called me one day and asked, do I know Barbara Brittingham? I didn’t know her, but she was leaving and they were going to start a search.
I had a lot of friends who worked in higher ed in New England and began reaching out to them, and the message was extraordinarily consistent. Tremendous respect for Barbara, for the staff, for the work that was happening. And then I began to do my homework.
It’s where higher education began. The diversity of institutions is really extraordinary, from the best in the world, top ranked in the world, to extraordinarily good community colleges and then all of the small independents that look like Oglethorpe or like Oglethorpe looked at some point.
Q: Oglethorpe is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges. Whenever someone talks about SACS, they always bring up a plan that everyone on campus is supposed to know.
A: The QEP. The quality enhancement plan.
Q: Should everyone in the Northeast start knowing what a QEP is as well?
A: No. The QEP is designed as part of the process. Accreditors -- it’s not a single mission. One is to assess and weigh in on the quality of the education being provided and student success. Another is to encourage institutions to improve, to have this continuous improvement. And then the third is [to be] answerable to the public. And each of them requires, I think, a little bit of different assessment.
The QEP is sort of the quality-enhancement piece, and it’s interesting. Going through the 10-year reaffirmation is a bear, and it’s at best a 24-month process that engages everybody. It’s a major commitment.
For some people, it’s like something we need to get through, and in other cases it’s a chance to step back and do self-assessment and have peers come in and help you do that. We’ve been through two QEPs. The first one, back in 2007, this was when we were having such financial issues that it didn’t add a lot of value. It was hard for us to focus on it because we were so focused on survival. But when 2017 came along, I think we came up with an extraordinary change in our advising structure, a pretty revolutionary change. That’s made a huge difference.
So it’s not that the QEP is going to travel north, but every one of the accreditors has a similar role in helping an institution figure out what it is they can do better or do differently.
Q: When we talk about accreditation in the Northeast, NECHE has been in the thick of discussions about financial responsibility, especially after the sudden closure of Mount Ida College outside Boston in 2018. Can you share any thoughts on what you’ll be doing on that front?
A: It’s among the big issues. I wouldn’t rank them, necessarily, but it’s a big one.
My sense is that what the pandemic has done is accelerate existing trends. It didn’t really necessarily create new ones, but it accelerated ones that were already visible. So the move to some kind of more remote learning is a trend that has accelerated. The financial precariousness of a number of small private institutions -- it’s accelerated that risk. The issues that the public institutions and systems are having in the Northeast: declining numbers of students, the smaller branches of the public institutions are struggling.
And then you’ve got immediate damage from having to shut down this spring and trying to make decisions about the fall and how long this is going to last. It puts added pressure on everybody.
State budgets aren’t going to be going up. So, yeah, it’s going to be, I think, a busy couple of years.
Q: After the Department of Education temporarily suspended rules about online delivery for the pandemic, will there be eventual quality-assurance fallout that accreditors will have to address?
A: The rules were suspended in the spring. They’ve been suspended for the fall semester again. But it’s not like accrediting agencies don’t have experience in assessing remote and distance learning. They’ve been doing that for years.
This is a substantive change issue. There are going to be, I think, a very heavy set of substantive change requests coming from schools that maybe only had one online program, and now they want to have six -- or had none and now they are trying to move to some blended format -- and schools changing calendars.
The commission meets a couple times a year. I think there’s going to have to be some thought given to how you handle in a thoughtful way, maybe a crush of requests. I don’t know.
It’s not like we’re going to have to start doing something we’ve never assessed before. It’s just the quantity is going to be different.
Q: Speed is an important issue. If I were to list criticisms I hear about accreditors generally, speed and transparency would be high. Is ability to handle a large number of requests quickly enough a concern?
A: I don’t know the specifics of the speed issue in New England. I would say SACS has changed quite a bit with regard to how responsive they are to substantive requests and what’s considered to be substantive and what’s not. We just asked for approval [at Oglethorpe] for a couple new programs that came back more quickly then we thought they’d come back.
In New England, we don’t have a big staff, which is interesting. It’s 11 of us and me, for 220-some institutions.
On transparency, if I go back to 2007, when I went through the accreditation with SACS, I’d probably have been the first in line to complain about transparency. It was like, I knew we were not doing well financially. I can figure that out. Tell me what it is that we need to do to meet the financial responsibility standard, because it’s a very vague standard. You have to have the financial resources to execute your mission.
But SACS ended up putting out almost an FAQ about financial standards, which I think ended up being really helpful.
This is not the NECHE staff that makes these decisions or even does the visits. There are volunteers. I think NECHE’s got a pretty sophisticated training system for these volunteers, and then it comes before the commission.
So, based on the conversations I’ve had with probably a half dozen of my colleagues who work in New England, I heard only positive things about NECHE. "Responsive" was a word I just keep hearing. You ask a question, you get an answer.
Q: Another national change is going to allow regional accreditors to expand beyond their traditional turf. Should we expect you to start courting California institutions?
A: That’s a commission decision. I’ve sort of walked in without a particular opinion on it. I think the Western accreditor is the only one that, so far, has indicated they will accept applications from outside the region.
I’m agnostic at this point. We also accredit about a dozen American schools abroad -- international schools. That’s another thing we’ll probably have to look at. There was a whole set of changes and regulations which ended up being negotiated, and I think most people found them accessible.
Q: Do you worry about others moving in on your territory?
A: It’s not on my top list of worries. I think we continue to serve our members well, continue to have the reputation we have, and I don’t think it will be an issue.
Q: Do you have other worries or priorities you’d like to highlight?
A: One thing. The strength of the American system is in its diversity, and when the economy collapses as it has, and families and students are pushed to the edge and stretched thin, the pressure tends to be on the institutions that serve students for whom higher education is the way to live the American dream.
And so I think everyone needs to be attentive. The top schools with a lot of money are going to be under tremendous pressure. They’re not going out of business. But I think the schools that serve disadvantaged students who did not come from wealth are schools you want to work closely with to ensure that the quality is there but they don’t disappear. I think we all ought to be worried about that.
You’ve seen in New England a fair amount of closures and mergers. That’s going to continue. And that pace will probably pick up. Any time a school closes or loses its identity through a merger, it’s got a dramatic impact on faculty, staff, students, alumni, but also the communities that these schools support.
You’ve seen some of these things that have happened in ways that could be better and then you’ve seen some that happened pretty gracefully -- students are taken care of in the best way and faculty find another home. NECHE’s got a role to play in that process.
Q: Are recent sudden collapses enough reason to be skeptical about the self-regulation aspect of accreditation -- can the sector police itself and address risky or bad actors?
A: On the nonprofit side, you’ve got a long history of accreditation serving the public well and serving students well.
There is tremendous strain coming and has been coming around demographics but also access and cost. And from the conversations I’ve had with Barbara and understanding the way the system works there, you can always point to a case where maybe it should have acted six months earlier or a year earlier. But for the most part, the schools that are at risk, NECHE knows them. The schools know that NECHE knows them.
From what I can gather, there’s a lot of transparency between NECHE and the state and institutions that are at risk.
Q: What did we miss?
A: You know, there are parts of this job I think I’m very, very well prepared for, and being the president of an independent institution that almost went under is a great preparation for part of this job. I’m obviously comfortable dealing with the public and have operated in a pretty transparent way, have dealt with state and local and federal officials. There’s lots of the job I think will feel familiar and then there are a bunch of parts of the job that will be new, and I’ll have to rely on my staff.
What sort of draws me to this, going back to where we started, is walking into something which is not going to be easy. In difficult times it is critically important work. How it’s done matters. Having your member institutions have faith that your processes are well intentioned and well designed and then having the public have confidence in it, working with state legislatures, it’s just complicated. That’s what I think makes it really interesting and really important and gets me to leave an Atlanta winter and go to a Boston winter.
Q: Looking back, what would you highlight as achievements or things of which you’re proud during your tenure?
A: One of the things I’m happy with in terms of leaving it to my successor is the commission. It is now and it has been an extraordinary group of volunteers. As time has gone on, their work has gotten more demanding, and they are dedicated and they listen to each other.
They represent a great array of mission and size and capacity of institutions and public members. The chair-elect is a public member, and we’ve recently added a couple of trustee members. So it’s a very diverse group not only demographically but in terms of their role and backgrounds.
As I watch them make decisions, I am impressed with them and very, very grateful, and also grateful to our volunteers on the teams, most of whom are from New England. But about one of every six team members or chairs is somebody outside of New England.
They do very good work. It’s been gratifying to me to have been at this work for long enough to see institutions develop, to watch leadership in action, as it were.
Q: The other side of that question is whether you wish you could have done something differently or better in the past.
A: You always wish you could do it better.
The commission has taken some actions recently to increase the amount of information it makes available to the public about commission actions and about what it finds at an institution. I think that is something that will continue. It has become and will continue to be important because of the very challenging times that institutions not only in New England, but certainly in New England, will face.
New England is having quite a decline in demographics of traditional-aged students, and then you add the virus on top of it, and there are going to be real challenges. The commission is going to see independent institutions [that] hopefully can find a way to merge in time and not, as some have recently, lose their accreditation and have to close. Vermont is a good example. They had three institutions close last year, and they’ve got one now that’s going to be merging and no longer be in Vermont.
That’s very hard on the local communities.
At the same time, the commission increasingly has been and will be, I think, mindful of what effects the demographics and the virus and state funding are having and will have on public institutions.
Q: Will you tell your successor and the commission to keep an eye on anything in particular going forward?
A: If you look back at the 2008 Higher Education Act, the way it is written, it assumes that you either have distance education, in which case you’re taking everything online, or you’re sitting in a classroom. I think one of the things that’s going to come out of this semester is a blurring of that distinction.
There will still be classes and programs taught entirely face-to-face and taught entirely online. But a lot of what I’m hearing makes me think that the combinations are going to be increasingly interesting.
I know some institutions that, for example, are fitting out more of their classrooms so that some of the students will be in the classroom and some of the students won’t be. If a student has to drop out or go home or something happens, the student doesn’t have to drop out of the semester, necessarily.
That’s just one example, but I think the combinations going forward are going to be really interesting.
Q: Is quality assurance a source of stress right now, given the sudden move to remote offerings this spring?
A: I think it varies all over the place. There are institutions -- Southern New Hampshire is a great example -- that have an on-ground component but almost all of the students are online. So that was not a big deal for them, really.
Then you’ve got institutions that were entirely on ground, and interestingly, some of those institutions have faculty members who have taught distance education and were trained at places that have a lot of experience in it. So they could help their colleagues.
Our commission is having a retreat later this month, and part of what they’re going to be thinking about is what happens after the fall for institutions that want approval or general approval to teach online and how can the commission modify its process so that it recognizes the experience that institutions are getting this semester and will get, presumably many of them, in the fall semester. But make sure that what they’re approving is distance education and not just remote education -- remote education being Zoom classes, for example, that were designed to be on ground and now just happen to be Zoomed out.
Q: How might the federal regulations allowing regional accreditors to expand beyond their traditional geography affect NECHE?
A: I don’t know and I’m not sure we’ll know right away. Our commission is aware of that, but they haven’t talked about it yet. I thought this is a good one to leave for my successor.
Q: Would you like to say anything else?
A: This is a great job, and I told people all along that it’s such a good job I was confident the search committee would find someone so wonderful that in a couple of years people would say, “What was the name of that woman who used to do that job?”
If you’re a higher ed junkie -- and I am -- if you’re at it long enough, you get to see storylines develop within individual institutions and in some cases within state systems and with coalitions and with the federal government. I will miss it. It’s good timing, but I’ll miss the storylines and I’ll certainly miss the people.