AVMA’s role as education accreditor scrutinized

USDE addresses critics as scheduled review of COE draws near

Published: December 11, 2012
By Jennifer Fiala

As the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) seeks to preserve its status as the nation’s sole accreditor of veterinary education, the group may face tough questions about whether rule bending and conflicts of interest play a role in Council on Education (COE) operations.

AVMA officials will go before a branch of the United States Department of Education (USDE) Wednesday morning as part of the COE's five-year review for continued recognition. The National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI) is a 18-member advisory board within USDE that counsels the Secretary of Education about the status of higher education accreditors.

According to the NACIQI's agenda, one hour and 15 minutes are allotted to focus on COE operations. It's uncertain whether decisions will be made during the hearing.

What's clear is that government officials are paying considerable attention to how veterinary accreditation is run in the United States, likely in response to recent complaints about how the COE operates. The comments, solicited by NACIQI ahead of the COE's five-year-review, were lodged mostly by academic insiders within the veterinary profession, government officials say.

USDE has recognized the COE — a 20-member volunteer accrediting body under the AVMA umbrella — since 1952. The COE’s job to accredit the nation’s 28 veterinary medical programs has attracted little controversy during much of those six decades.

That's now changed, and so have challenges facing veterinarians in the United States.

AVMA officials promote expanding the COE's review of veterinary programs to international schools. At least 13 foreign veterinary medical programs are recognized by the COE.

This comes at a time when the U.S. job market for veterinarians is suffering, educational indebtedness is at an all-time high and market oversaturation is considered by many to be a major threat to the future health of the profession.

AVMA accreditation makes it easier for graduates of foreign programs to work inside the United States. At the same time, critics question whether some programs truly are on par with U.S. veterinary institutions or external pressures are influencing COE decisions. 

A dozen or so veterinarians — including at least five high-profile educators and administrators — wrote letters to NACIQI. Some suggested that the COE is overly and improperly influenced by AVMA executives and policymakers. Their grievances against the AVMA and COE are outlined in a 24-page audit by the government.
The AVMA is criticized because it administers a foreign graduate equivalency examination at the same time it hosts an accreditation program — an arrangement considered by some to be a conflict of interest. By comparison, the accreditation of human medical programs is run by an independent body sponsored by both the American Medical Association and the Association of American Medical Colleges.

The AVMA also is accused of failing to uniformly apply the COE's 11 accreditation standards, seeming to adopt an inconsistent approach to accreditation that varies depending on the program in question.

In the government audit, AVMA officials played down criticisms by noting that those with complaints represent a “small fraction” of the veterinary profession.

USDE officials did not agree with that assessment.

“That five of the 28 programs would express concern regarding the agency’s continued recognition ... suggests that the agency’s standards, policies, procedures and decisions to grant or deny accreditation are not widely accepted among educators and educational institutions within the academic science community,” auditors stated.

And being “widely accepted” by the profession is a USDE recognition requirement. 

“The Department holds that the academic science voice of this profession is a critical one, whether or not it represents a minority of the profession overall. Also notable is that the commenters are distinguished members of the profession familiar with the accreditation review process,” agency officials continued. 

The audit recommends that COE officials begin addressing constituent concerns and suggests giving the agency 12 months to become more transparent in its accreditation processes. The COE also needs to clear up any ambiguity in its compliance standards, start publicizing negative accreditation decisions and use mainstream media to issue notices rather than relying on member-based publications such as the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, the report says.

It appears the COE already is working to remedy some deficiencies outlined in the audit. AVMA officials also have embarked on a public relations campaign touting the COE’s “gold standard” for accreditation.

"... Veterinary schools from around the world seek AVMA Council on Education Accreditation," said Dr. James Brace, COE member at large, in one of two videos about the group. "The AVMA's accreditation program has been in a state of constant improvement."

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