July 26, 2021
July 26, 2021
July 19, 2022
Liberal Education/Engineering & Society
This paper reflects on the significance of ABET’s “rogue evaluators” and what it says about the limits of accreditation as a mode of governance in US engineering education. The US system of engineering education operates as a highly complex system, where the diversity of the system is an asset to robust knowledge production and the production of a varied workforce. ABET Inc., the principal accreditation agency for engineering degree programs in the US, attempts to uphold a set of professional standards for engineering education using a voluntary, peer-based system of evaluation. Key to their approach is a volunteer army of trained program evaluators (PEVs) assigned by the engineering professional societies, who serve as the frontline workers responsible for auditing the content, learning outcomes, and continuous improvement processes utilized by every engineering degree program accredited by ABET. We take a look specifically at those who become labeled “rogue evaluators” in order to better understand how this system functions, and to understand its limitations as a form of governance in maintaining educational quality and appropriate professional standards within engineering education.
ABET was established in 1932 as the Engineers’ Council for Professional Development (ECPD). The Cold War consensus around the engineering sciences led to a more quantitative system of accreditation first implemented in 1956. However, the decline of the Cold War and rising concerns about national competitiveness prompted ABET to shift to a more neoliberal model of accountability built around outcomes assessment and modeled after total quality management / continuous process improvement (TQM/CPI) processes that nominally gave PEVs greater discretion in evaluating engineering degree programs. However, conflicts over how the PEVs exercised judgment points to conservative aspects in the structure of the ABET organization, and within the engineering profession at large.
This paper and the phenomena we describe here is one part of a broader, interview-based study of higher education governance and engineering educational reform within the United States. We have conducted over 300 interviews at more than 40 different academic institutions and professional organizations, where ABET and institutional responses to the reforms associated with “EC 2000,” which brought outcomes assessment to engineering education, are extensively discussed.
The phenomenon of so-called “rogue evaluators” reveal the divergent professional interests that remain embedded within ABET and the engineering profession at large. Those associated with Civil and Environmental Engineering, and to a lesser extent Mechanical Engineering continue to push for higher standards of accreditation grounded in a stronger vision for their professions. While the phenomenon is complex and more subtle than we can summarize in an abstract, “rogue evaluators” emerged as a label for PEVs who interpreted their role, including determinations about whether certain content “appropriate to the field of study,” utilizing professional standards that lay outside of the consensus position held by the majority of the member of the Engineering Accreditation Commission. This, conjoined with the engineers’ epistemic aversion to uncertainty and concerns about the legal liability of their decisions, resulted in a more narrow interpretation of key accreditation criteria. The organization then designed and used a “due-process” reviews process to discipline identified shortcomings in order to limit divergent interpretations. The net result is that the bureaucratic process ABET built to obtain uniformity in accreditation outcomes, simultaneously blunts the organization’s capacity to support varied interpretations of professional standards at the program level. The apparatus has also contributed to ABET’s reputation as an organization focused on minimum standards, as opposed to one that functions as an effective driver for further change in engineering education.
Akera, A., & Appelhans, S., & Cheville, A., & De Pree, T., & Fatehiboroujeni, S., & Karlin, J., & Riley, D. M. (2021, July), ABET's Maverick Evaluators and the Limits of Accreditation as a Mode of Governance in Engineering Education Paper presented at 2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual Conference. 10.18260/1-2--36632
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