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Patrick Henry College: Accredited, But What Does It Mean?

April 20, 2007

Many moons ago I reflected on Patrick Henry College (PHC), an institution located in Purcellville, VA (near Washington, DC). The older post was instigated by a Guardian Unlimited article. My concerns at the time were PHC’s interpretation of history, and its classically-based core curriculum – which purports to mix the liberal arts with a Christian worldview.

I was moved to rethink my analysis of PHC after reading this Washington Post article by Michael Alison Chandler. Titled “Christian Group Accredits School,” Chandler’s cause for reflection was PHC’s full accreditation by the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools (TRACS). When I wrote on PHC, I believe they were only partially accredited by TRACS. Here’s a blurb from TRACS website:

“TRACS was established in 1979 to promote the welfare, interests, and development of postsecondary institutions, whose mission is characterized by a distinctly Christian purpose, as defined in our Foundational Standards. TRACS encourages each affiliated institution to develop its own distinctives, while providing quality postsecondary education within the context of spiritual development. TRACS institutions place emphasis on high academic standards as well as Christian values.”

Chandler’s article takes accreditation and turns it toward controversies about curriculum and instruction at the college, but also covers some of the institution’s history. Here are some excerpts:

– “Seven years after it was formed as an elite evangelical college for home-schoolers, Patrick Henry College became a fully accredited institution this week. Founder Michael P. Farris called it ‘the biggest single day in the history of the college.’ “
– “The [TRACS] decision is a positive milestone for a campus that has recently struggled with high faculty turnover and questions about its commitment to offering a strong liberal arts education along with a conservative Biblical worldview. But for some students and alumni, the stamp of approval represents a compromise for the school, because they would like to see a more liberal-arts-style accreditation.”
– “An outside vote of confidence may improve graduates’ chances of landing competitive government jobs or gaining admission into top law schools — the school already has an impressive track record — but some students and alumni said they aren’t sure whether it will help the school’s reputation as a premier liberal arts college.”
– “This spring, two professors [Jennifer Gruenke and G.T. Smith] announced they will be leaving at the end of the academic year, and their decisions seem tied to the departure last spring of five of the school’s 16 full-time professors, who said they felt constrained by limitations on academic freedom.”
– “Their announcements prompted senior Randy Wanis, in a campuswide e-mail, to call for the Student Senate to initiate a formal investigation. But as a whole, he said, students have not reacted strongly. ‘Turnover in the faculty is a usual thing,’ said Peter Kamakawiwoole, a junior.”
– “The college’s pursuit of accreditation began shortly after the doors opened in 2000. In 2002, it won pre-accreditation from the American Academy for Liberal Education, which has accredited St. John’s College in Annapolis and Baylor University’s College of Arts and Sciences, after Patrick Henry appealed a denial based in part on its creationist curriculum. But three years later, the college abruptly canceled its application after the accreditor announced a site visit to look into some issues, said Jeffrey Wallin, the accreditor’s president.”
– “The school also filed a preliminary application with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which accredits the College of William & Mary, among others, but did not pursue it, Walker said.”
– “Carol Browning, who graduated last spring, said she hopes the school will. ‘TRACS will say this school does a good job at being a Christian school, but Patrick Henry was supposed to be more than that. It was supposed to be rigorous liberal arts college. It was supposed to be the Christian Ivy league.’ “

Well, PHC will never be an elite institution with faculty leaving over freedom of speech issues. Period. Never. While Mr. Kamakawiwoole’s statement maybe true in fact, it’s not the norm in higher education.

If your institution is struggling to make it past what would constitute, for a regular school, an AAUP censure, then your chances of obtaining accreditation from a mainline agency (like SACS) are slim.

Even though I’m critical of PHC’s structure, here’s how I’d look at their situation as a partisan:

Why can’t the college’s administration see that the institution’s long-term survival is at stake. Even though the current (national) presidential administration is pleased to hire PHC grads, what will happen if/when that situation changes? And what if the Department of Education becomes populated with personnel less friendly to the goals and mission of PHC? It would behoove the college to make changes and seek mainline accreditation while the political climate is somewhat favorable.

Interesting stuff. – TL

PS – A cohort of “concerned alumni” have a created a website dedicated to a variety of issues related to PHC.

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