Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The forgotten crisis of 1927

In a recent post, I dropped the year "1927" into the familiar list of crisis years in Shimer College history.  I was, I'll confess, hoping that somebody would ask "what happened at Shimer in 1927?"  Nobody did, but I'm not going to let that stop me from answering the question anyway.

The December 1926 issue of the Frances Shimer Record, recently uploaded to archive.org (and embedded below), opens with an urgent communiqué from Shimer's second president:
With the opening of the New Year, Frances Shimer School faces a crisis and, for the first time in its history of over seventy-three years, the School is making a financial appeal to its constituency for endowment and buildings. The need in which the institution finds itself is due to no fault on the part of the administrative officers.  The School was never so well equipped as it is today, nor the attendance larger.  Moreover, the institution has no debts and its income has for years been in excess of its expenditures.

Since 1909 the School has continuously and in all particulars met the exacting standards of the North Central Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools.  Now, however, this same organization has voted that beginning with the year 1927, all Junior Colleges in order to remain on its accredited list must have an annual income of not less than $10,000 from stable sources over and above the income from student fees.
(For context, one calculator indicates that this is equivalent to $132,000 in today's dollars in terms of purchasing power, or $1.64 million in terms of economic power.)

I believe this is the first crisis (and far from the last) that was directly precipitated by Shimer's accreditor, the North Central Association.  I cannot recall ever having heard of this particular crisis, and it seems to have been weathered easily enough.  In the great historical sweep of Shimer crises, perhaps, it hardly rates a mention. But it certainly set a pattern, which has continued to the present day, of the NCA imposing arbitrary thresholds unrelated to educational quality.

Then as now, the NCA calls the tune and Shimer must dance. And then as now, the changes forced by the accreditor are not necessarily bad: Shimer weathered the Great Depression surprisingly well, and some of that may be thanks to the expansion of its funding base that the NCA required.  The same may be true of other NCA-forced changes over the years. (Without the accreditors' carping, for example, Shimer might never have had President Albin Bro, Ph.D., and thus never have become the Great Books school of today.)

At the same time, it's hard to overlook the utter moral bankruptcy of the system.  In making dictates of this sort, which have become rather commonplace since 1926, the NCA is not merely laying out best practices in higher education administration.  It is not merely suggesting (as a reasonable person might) that students should consider carefully before attending a school that might abruptly cease to operate. It is saying that academic qualifications from an institution with less than a given level of financial support should not be recognized.  Students from nonconforming schools will be mercilessly shut out, no matter how sound their academic work.  And at Shimer, we know that this is not an empty threat.

In the American accreditation system, its seems, regulatory capture converges in a particularly ugly way with the use of higher education as a mechanism of socioeconomic sorting.  The crisis of 1927 gave Shimer its first glimpse of this fact, but regrettably far from its last.

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