In a rare occurrence for a school of Yeshiva University’s caliber, the Orthodox community’s flagship institution received a warning in November from its accreditor regarding two of its undergraduate colleges, although it is virtually assured they will not lose their accreditation.
Colleges and universities must be accredited by agencies recognized by the United States Department of Education in order to be eligible for federal grants and loans. YU’s accreditor, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, evaluates schools in the mid-Atlantic region, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
The warning said that Yeshiva and Stern Colleges, the men’s and women’s schools, are not in compliance with two of Middle States’ 14 standards, one involving the regular assessment of student learning and the ability to make improvements based on those assessments, and the other concerning the solicitation of input from the faculty by the administration, said Middle States spokesman Richard Pokrass.
No agency has ever pulled accreditation from a “major institution” like YU, said Terry Hartle, senior vice president at the American Council on Education.
“I don’t want to imply that this isn’t a big deal. It’s a significant action taken by an accreditor,” he said. “But Yeshiva is a world-class higher-education institution. This will all go away by September,” when the school will issue a follow-up report that will likely cause the commission to withdraw the warning.
The commission itself said that “Yeshiva has enjoyed immense and very commendable progress since its 2002 Middle States review,” and a “dramatically improved academic life,” according to an excerpt from the commission’s report that YU showed the Jewish Week.
During President Richard Joel’s tenure, YU suffered a financial blow due to losses from a $110 million investment in a vehicle itself invested with Ponzi scheme architect Bernard Madoff. But before that, Joel created 64 new tenure-track positions, initiated new master’s degrees, like economics, and made many other academic and aesthetic changes.
Yet in 2012, Middle States reaffirmed the accreditation of 82 schools and issued warnings to only 16, including YU. The other institutions that received warnings are mostly community colleges and small religious liberal arts colleges.
One issue, the assessment of student learning — one of the two Middle States standards with which YU is not in compliance — has become especially important over the past decade, Hartle said.
It’s one of the most difficult standards to meet, Hartle said. It accounted for half of Middle States’ 16 warnings in 2012.
“How you define and measure student learning is something that an awful lot of people in higher education have spent an enormous amount of time investigating, without coming to any answers,” he said.
The challenge of measuring intangibles is especially acute at religious institutions, which helps explain why YU, unlike Middle States schools like New York University or the University of Rochester, received a warning, Hartle said.
YU has a plan for how to assess learning that will be piloted next year, President Richard Joel said. Based on that pilot, the actual program will be in place by the fall semester of 2014. YU will present the plan to Middle States in September, and anticipates getting back into compliance on this standard then.
On the other standard, the one involving faculty governance, YU says it is already in compliance, because it has created a council that will give the faculty a greater voice in the school and, in December, approved a faculty handbook that publishes criteria for promotions and tenure.
On these questions, Joel said, Middle States is “out of date,” although he also said he was sorry that it took so long — eight years — to publish the faculty handbook.
But faculty claim the delay is symptomatic of a school culture in which they have too little say in curricular and intellectual issues.
“There are schools where the faculty really runs the school, like Reed College,” said Stern College English Professor Joy Ladin. “YU was toward the other end of the spectrum, where faculty really has no formal, regular influence on decision-making, and I don’t think that’s good, either. The provost was working on this, but the Middle States process moved it from the back burner to the front burner.”