Proposed federal rules for private colleges could endanger academic freedom

Proposed federal rules for private colleges could endanger academic freedom

CCU President Bill Armstrong.
CCU President Bill Armstrong.


New substantive regulations on higher education could restrict the freedom of private colleges and universities and result in further “politicization,” a former U.S. Senator has said. An official with a Jesuit educational association similarly voiced concern about academic freedom, saying the new rules are “far-reaching and unnecessary.”

Bill Armstrong, former Republican Senator from Colorado and current president of Colorado Christian University (CCU), sent a July 30 letter to the Department of Education regarding new federal regulations for higher education.

The proposed rules are the result of the department’s effort to curtail fraud and abuse and to ensure federal funds are well-spent in federal student aid programs.

Armstrong warned that the proposed regulations would undermine the authority of regional accreditation bodies and would open both public and private schools to “substantive” regulation by state governments. In his reading of the rules, individual states would have to establish “guidelines, standards and requirements” for such institutions.

“Many states may exercise restraint in doing so. But, inevitably, some state legislatures or agencies will get deeply involved in setting course requirements, quality measures, faculty qualifications and various mandates about how and what to teach,” Armstrong commented, warning that this outcome will “seriously compromise” the independence of higher education.

Substantive regulation of private schools raises questions of academic freedom and First Amendment rights, he continued, adding that the regulatory burden and costs of compliance would pose “a serious problem” for small private institutions.

The CCU president also warned that regulation could result in “politicization of higher education” as various interests try to press for requirements adopting or repudiating certain curricula, teaching methods and policies.

The proposed rules “almost guarantee that states will have to cope with noisy arguments over teaching methods, degree requirements and culture wars over textbooks, evolution versus Intelligent Design, phonics versus whole language, campus ROTC, climate change, family policy, abortion, race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.,” he warned.

While institutions already face such controversies, Armstrong acknowledged, the proposed rules weaken the “crucial” presumption in favor of each institution’s academic freedom and autonomy. Substantive regulation, in his view, adds an “explicitly political step”

Armstrong asked for an extension of the comment time by 60 or 90 days to allow further study and response of the regulations.

In a Tuesday phone interview, CNA spoke about the proposed rules with Cynthia Littlefield, director of federal relations at the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities (AJCU).

She explained that the AJCU defends the interests of Jesuit institutions “to preserve the uniqueness of our mission and academic integrity and the way we operate it.” Commenting on the new Department of Education proposal, Littlefield said, “as innocent as they may appear,” they merit consideration because of their possible impact.

Noting that the AJCU had also filed comment on the rules, she said one of the organization’s concerns focuses on the Department of Education’s desire to define a “credit hour” for the purposes of regulation.

Private institutions, including religious-affiliated ones, have designed the “credit hour” for their purposes and have had this authorized by their creditors. According to Littlefield, the federal government’s definition of such a concept could create a “one-size fits all” solution that intrudes on curriculum oversight and academic freedom.

She added that Congress never wanted the credit hour to be defined in its deliberations on the legislation which prompted the Department of Education action. Discussion during the legislative sessions about credit hours was “minimal,” Littlefield said.

A bigger concern for the AJCU involves the state authorization process which normally approves private institutions. The proposed regulations are “somewhat confusing” and no higher education organizations are certain whether their implementation would keep those state laws in place or “sort of throw them up in the air.”

According to Littlefield, the Department of Education’s involvement is based on one particular problem regarding a non-profit educational institution in California whose oversight was not reauthorized by the state for several years.

“That opened the door to the Department of Education thinking and believing that we needed more oversight,” she told CNA.

AJCU members are regulated by every federal agency. “We are highly complicated institutions,” she explained.

Her organization believes the controversial rules are “far-reaching and unnecessary.”