Biology departments need an accreditation body


My department would be so much better off if it was possible for us to be accredited. But no accreditation is possible for Biology Departments in the US.

Every credible university (as well as some slimy and disreputable ones) is regionally accredited. However, accreditation for individual units within universities is not universally available.

In some fields accreditation is the norm. My university has a variety of accredited programs. Our Chemistry Department gets its undergraduate program accredited by ACS. The Department of Computer Science gets accredited through ABET, and this organization accredits a variety of other technical disciplines. Our School of Business has been accredited by AACSB, but I just failed to find them on the list. And the programs in Education are nationally by NCATE as well as within the state by the CCTC. And there are more, such as nursing.

As for Biology? There’s bupkis. Zip. Zilch. No professional organization has stepped up to the plate to offer such a service.

You might wonder, how is it that I even have heard about accreditation in other departments on my campus? Because I’ve seen those folks get better treatment, year after year. Whenever we all need something, those departments get it and mine gets the leftovers, if there are any. When we ask why other departments get more resources, the answer is that those departments need certain things to keep their accreditation.

Because there is nobody to threaten the loss of accreditation in my department, we have experienced chronic deprivation during times of financial stress. The accredited programs are in far better shape than our department and other non-accredited departments. If there was such thing as accreditation for a Biology department, we’d fall short of the mark in a number of ways.

Any higher level administrator will tell you what a pain in the butt it is to maintain regional accreditation. They’ll also tell you that good things come out of having to prepare for reviews, despite the headaches. The accreditation body prescribes the allocation of resources to areas required for long-term maintenance of institutional resources.

Don’t get me wrong. I hate bureaucracy. The process of getting accredited is probably a pain the butt. But for at least some of us, the benefits of accreditation would greatly outweigh the trouble.

There’s one organization that is in a position to develop an accreditation body for undergraduate Biology programs: The American Institute of Biological Sciences – AIBS. They’re the publishers of Bioscience. AIBS is national organization with a broad reach, and has a history of dedication to undergraduate education and working with undergraduate programs.

AIBS needs to step up to the bat and invest the time and money to get this effort started as a service to our community.

Just imagine if your departmental homepage could bear the stamp of AIBS Accreditation. Wouldn’t that be nice? Moreover, imagine that you needed a new piece of equipment for teaching because the old one died, and that you are told by administration that there won’t be the budget to replace the equipment for two years. Now, imagine how quickly that piece of equipment would be replaced if you mentioned that it was expected for accreditation.

Imagine that you just had a few people retire and someone leave your department, and that your administration isn’t funding the searches for faculty members to replace these lines. However, by not maintaining an adequate tenure-line faculty:major ratio in the department, you would have problems in your next accreditation review. Moreover, you need faculty members with expertise in a certain combination of disciplines to be able to maintain accreditation. Also, accredited departments are not allowed to use too many adjuncts to fill up the course schedule.

What I just described is not a farfetched scenario. Our colleagues in business and computer science have a lower teaching load than the rest of us, because the requirements of their accrediting bodies. Also, our colleges in accredited units are always first in line for new faculty hires because these hires are required to maintain, or to earn back, accreditation. Meanwhile, my department has half the faculty that we had when I arrived seven years ago and more than twice the number of majors. That situation would never have been allowed if we had accreditation.

The long years it took to replace the rickety autoclave, outdated microscopes, and a slew of teaching supplies would never have been necessary if we needed them to keep accreditation. There are still many basic instructional materials that we lack, but our operating budget is so low that it’s hard to foresee the acquisition of these items in the near future. That wouldn’t be the case if we needed these materials for accreditation.

If my department was accredited, faculty would be less overworked, students would have better equipped laboratories, we would have a greater range of faculty expertise, and we would be able to offer courses in particular elective areas that we have not been given the funding to offer to our students. But, there’s no accreditation body to whom we may appeal.

By the way, I’m not the first guy to make this argument. At an AIBS Undergraduate Biology Summit in 2008, this topic came up. Two guys made a good argument for the need for accreditation of undergraduate biology departments. This is the pdf of their presentation. It doesn’t look like much has happened in the past five years since this presentation was made. There is some kind of accreditation offered by the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, but based on the website it looks entirely rinky-dink to me.

How do you think your department could change for the better in response to the need for accreditation? What kinds of changes do you think you would not want to make, that might be part of Biology accreditation?

If you are in an accredited science department, do you see the process of attaining and maintaining accreditation to be worth it?

3 thoughts on “Biology departments need an accreditation body

  1. I completely agree. It is the same issue about all of the biologists not being able to go to a meeting together that covers all the disciplines. Thus, a gap exists in continuity across biology compared to chemistry, physics, math or computer science. Vision & Change is trying to pull people together – but it is hard b/c biologists are never in the same place. Accreditation would go a long way – just as long as the standards don’t get mingled in with proving a “pre-med” education.

  2. I agreed, the whole ‘pre-med’ thing would need to be independent. We have so many disparate societies, that the one umbrella would be AIBS, as far as I can tell. It would just take a few people who truly, really dedicate their time to make it happen, and some initial budget. All I know is that it isn’t me. And that’s what everybody else says, I guess.

  3. You are totally correct. We have the same issues at my institution. There needs to be an accreditation body for Biology. I am sure that if an overarching (parent) organization would ask for volunteers they would find all the help that they needed.

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