Shifting Alliances in the Accreditation of Higher Education: On the Long Term Consequences of the Delegation of Government Authority to Self-Regulatory Organizations




Weissburg, Paul

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This dissertation uses the accreditation of U.S. higher education as a case study with which to analyze the applicability of multiple-principals theory to self-regulating professions. The multiple-principals theory, an offshoot of principal-agent theory, has been used in the past to examine the long term consequences of the delegation of government authority to private, self-regulatory organizations. As with most literature on self-regulation, it occurred within the context of an industry. This dissertation is the first application of the multiple-principal problem to a profession rather and it is one of the very few papers in the field of private governance to address the implications of that distinction. The agents in this case-study are regional accreditation associations, which were originally created by colleges and universities to act as self-regulatory bodies, and the two principals are the regionals’ member institutions and the federal government. The history of the accreditation of higher education is explored through the use of historical documents, texts and scholarly articles, original government legislation, transcripts from Congressional Hearings, letters exchanged between key players, news articles, and a series of interviews that has been conducted with the executive directors of five of the regional accreditation associations, an accreditation historian who is also the Vice President of one of the regionals, and the Co-Chair for the George Mason University Compliance Committee for the 2011 Reaffirmation of Accreditation. The final chapter of the dissertation uses additional data gathered from each of the five executive directors to identify which principal was the primary determinant of the associations’ actions at various, crucial junctures in the history of accreditation. Ultimately, analysis of the data provides only mild support for the version of multiple-principals theory that is used in this dissertation, revealing a large number of significant variables that have been overlooked. The underlying concept of multiple-principals, however, is found to be a significant determinant of the agent’s actions, although it is not the only one; three other significant determinants are also identified. The dissertation concludes with a discussion of the implications of these findings for the delegation of government authority to private, self-regulatory organizations in both industries and professions.



Accreditation, Higher education, Self-regulation, Principal-agent, Self-regulating industry, Private governance