A behind-the-scenes look at what regional accreditation means to Free Will Baptist Bible College, to FWBBC students, and to the broader Free Will Baptist denomination.
by Greg Ketteman and David Williford
“Regional accreditation would ruin the Bible College! The government will tell you what you can and can’t teach. It will destroy the college as we know it.”
“If we are regionally accredited the government will require us to hire unsaved professors to teach at the college. It might even require us to teach evolution instead of creationism.”
Before pursuing regional accreditation with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), there was trepidation among Free Will Baptists regarding the impact this would have on FWBBC’s solid stance on biblical inerrancy, belief that all truth is God’s truth, and biblically-centered teaching. There were fears that the school’s traditional, conservative, Christian culture would be brought into question and that changes required for accreditation would result in the college losing control over its Bible-centered curriculum.
Much of the concern stemmed from the belief that SACS was somehow a part of the federal government and that accreditation was tantamount to having the federal government dictate the content of our curriculum and the character of our culture. Following the college’s successful 10-year accreditation reaffirmation process with SACS this year, it is a good time to review just exactly what regional accreditation means for the college, her students, and the Free Will Baptist denomination.
Many mistakenly believe that SACS is affiliated with or run by the federal government. The reality is that SACS is an association of colleges and schools that join voluntarily for the purposes of sharing and implementing best collegiate practices, conducting peer review, and working as an association to improve higher education. SACS accreditation is about excellence in college teaching and administration, not about determining college curriculum.
While best collegiate practices call for institutions to provide each student with a well-developed course syllabus on the first day of class, FWBBC has never been called on to justify the fact that the course is Evangelism and Discipleship, Biblical Basis of Missions, or Christ in the Old Testament or to make changes in our curriculum. While peer review calls on the college to submit documentation about healthy patterns of student campus life, we have never been called on to change our regular Spiritual Life group (prayer group) meetings, Christian service activities, or daily chapel times with Bible-based messages. And while SACS accreditation calls on the college to be a part of improving higher education, the college has never been sanctioned or reprimanded because, in our view, improvement of higher education centers on a biblical worldview.
Rather than being a threat to FWBBC’s existence and freedom, SACS accreditation actually provides support for our right to exist in an increasingly hostile, secular environment. Fears about the agenda of the federal government are well founded if one reviews the history of secularism in the public schools and in many colleges, both public and private. Federal and state legislation and regulation of K-12 education has become increasingly hostile to conservative, biblical thought and practices and there is little doubt that the U.S. Department of Education (USDE) wants to do for higher education what it has done for public elementary and secondary education. Today the USDE continues to seek more control over higher education. Our accrediting associations, including SACS, are not taking this lying down.
The fact is that SACS and other large, voluntary regional accrediting associations play an important role in preventing the federal government from having its way with U.S. colleges and universities. Few institutions in America value their autonomy and right to independent thinking more than American colleges and universities. Membership in large, regional accrediting associations provides some leverage in dealing with the designs the USDE has on American institutions of higher education. Without these large, regional associations few institutions would have the funding, personnel, and clout necessary to successfully defend their autonomy against efforts of the federal government to control and regulate everything from college personnel to curriculum.
In a December 2008 annual SACS association meeting in San Antonio, TX, association members were warned that the federal government was eying higher education, hoping to translate public demands for accountability into greater control and regulation of American colleges and universities. We were urged to stand together against such control and regulation and to remain committed to the historic precedent of autonomous curricular decision-making.
As a member of SACS, FWBBC shares this common concern with public universities like the University of Virginia, the University of Tennessee, and the University of Alabama, and with private colleges and universities like Vanderbilt, Lipscomb, and Johnson Bible College. FWBBC will come to different conclusions about what should be the heart of our curriculum than will say Vanderbilt or the University of Alabama. But our membership in a regional accrediting association strengthens and protects our curricular autonomy and helps us to preserve our Bible-centered curriculum.
What benefits does accreditation bring? Here’s one example. One of the requirements for our reaffirmation with SACS was that we develop a Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP) that would focus on some aspect of campus life. In the plan we were to select an area of campus life that we want to improve, document the need, and develop a strategic plan to address that need.
We chose to look at how our freshmen assimilate into campus life, and see if we could do a better job helping new students succeed in their college experience. Out of that study came a document that set forth a plan of mentoring by older students, enhanced tutorial help, and better access to campus opportunities.
Some may ask, “Well, shouldn’t you have been doing that anyway?” Yes, we should, and we have done some things along this line, but this forced us to look long and hard at how we were doing business and find ways to better serve our students. It is a good thing for the school, because it is a good thing for our students.
Would we have focused on this without SACS requiring it from us? The honest answer is, probably not as soon and probably not as well. The truth is all of us benefit when someone holds us accountable. We “elevate our game” when we know we are accountable to someone else. That’s human nature, and this is one example of how SACS helped us to do a better job at what we really want to do well.
By the way, the accreditation team was so impressed with our plan that several members suggested we market it as a model for other schools!
Other benefits include recognition and transfer of our college credits nationwide and internationally, acceptance of our students’ diplomas by employers who require regionally accredited degrees, acceptance of our students’ diplomas for graduate school admission, and FWBBC accountability for use of best practices in higher education in the classroom, business office, and administrative offices. Accountability in an accrediting association like SACS for the use or our resources also helps to ensure wise use of denominational, state, and individual support.
Has SACS Changed Us?
Yes and no. Accreditation has changed us because it requires that we devote some resources to planning, implementation, assessment, evaluation, and reporting. But shouldn’t these things be part of what any excellent college does? While SACS membership is not free, its benefits add great value to the education FWBBC students receive and to the FWBBC diploma.
Accreditation has not changed us because all of our faculty, staff, and administration are Christians. We still require daily chapel attendance, weekly Christian service assignments, and dorm prayer meetings. We still have a day of prayer each semester, the annual Bible Conference, and missions retreats. Our students are still required to testify that they know Christ as their personal Savior, and they are encouraged to live out their testimonies every day.
We promote Christian growth and maturity, and each spring our graduates are testimonies to God’s work in their lives through the ministry of FWBBC. We still evangelize in our community, and we still stand for the historic Christian faith, and we still emphasize our Free Will Baptist distinctives.
Our students still dress professionally when they go to class. We still require attendance at cultural events designed to broaden our students’ perspectives and enhance their appreciation for the arts. In short, we still do what the college began doing in 1942.
So, has SACS accreditation been a good thing for FWBBC? In spite of some early fears by some of us, the answer is yes. It proclaims to everyone that FWBBC is serious about Christian higher education. It affirms the belief of our people that when they send their young people to FWBBC, they are getting a quality education.
It confirms the Christian commitment to quality education of those who graduate, verifying their preparation for service in Free Will Baptist churches, schools, and agencies. It assures graduate schools that our graduates are coming to them well prepared for the rigors of graduate work.
It reassures employees that the FWBBC graduates they hire have been challenged and prepared both morally and intellectually for the positions they seek. And most important of all, it helps us to do a better job of what we do: “Educate leaders to serve Christ, His Church, and His world through biblical thought and life.”
About the Writers: Greg Ketteman is provost at FWBBC; David Williford is FWBBC’s vice president for institutional advancement. Learn more at www.fwbbc.edu.