USDE staff heeds 800-plus complaints against AVMA COE

Report calls for significant change for accrediting agency

Published: December 04, 2014
By Jennifer Fiala

Six months to a year, tops.

That’s all the time staffers at the U.S. Department of Education (USDE) want to give the American Veterinary Medical Association to fix a myriad of alleged deficiencies within its accrediting body, the Council on Education (COE).

USDE staff outlined their grievances in a report, released Monday. The fact that USDE received more than 900 letters, most from veterinarians critical of the COE's performance, was referenced throughout the analysis.

On the table is the COE’s re-recognition as the sole accreditor of veterinary education in America. The harsh critique from USDE staff is remarkable for the AVMA COE, which has evaluated veterinary academia since the early 1950s.

AVMA and COE officials did not respond to VIN News Service requests for their perspective.

The USDE staff report is intended to guide the agency’s National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI), an 18-member panel of auditors that advises the Secretary of Education on the recognition of higher education accreditors.

The AVMA COE will appear before NACIQI on Dec. 11 in Arlington, Virginia, in response to a 2012 edict by auditors to become more consistent, transparent, inclusive and, among other things, weed out conflicts of interest.

While NACIQI reconsiders the COE's appointment every five years, the auditors’ tough look in 2012 was encouraged by veterinarians who testified before the panel, accusing the accrediting body of being overly influenced by AVMA politics and operating outside of federal guidelines and directives.

During the past two years, AVMA officials say they’ve modified how the COE functions by inviting the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges (AAVMC) to get more involved with accreditation. They’ve also tweaked standards that weren’t uniformly applied to foreign programs and schools without teaching hospitals. Volunteers who go on site visits are no longer COE members with a voting stake in a program’s accreditation. As for transparency, more information about COE actions is being provided online, AVMA officials say.

That’s not enough, many veterinarians say. Some assert that the COE operates in a vacuum, steered by the deep-seated influence of AVMA politics. Others point to the sudden firing of Dr. Mary Beth Leininger. The former AVMA president was kicked off the COE last spring after questioning the use of resources to accredit foreign programs, an undertaking that for years has generated heated debate among veterinarians.

USDE staff reference this discontent in their report, calling the widespread negative perception of the COE a violation of the Code of Federal Regulations, section 602.13: acceptance of the agency by others.

“...The department has received over 900 comments from educators, educational institutions and practitioners against the agency’s continued recognition, which allege inconsistent application of agency standards, undue political influence from the (AVMA), and non-acceptance of the agency’s standards and processes,” the staff report says.

Ninety-eight comments were received in support of the COE, and deans at 26 of the country’s 30 veterinary programs advocated for continued recognition of the accrediting body.

Nevertheless, USDE staff gave weight to the volume of those critical of the accrediting body.

“Due to the outstanding sections of non-compliance and the overwhelming number of negative comments received from educators, the agency remains non-compliant under this section as it has not demonstrated wide acceptance among educators,” the report said.

“Given that the vast majority of negative comments received were from practitioners,” the report continued, “the agency has further not demonstrated wide acceptance among practitioners.”

USDE staff summarized the negative comments this way:

•    Non-acceptance of current COE standards and processes, with accusations that standards are vague, inconsistently enforced and weakened to justify the accreditation of substandard schools.
•    The commingling of the AVMA and AAVMC and allegations that these groups’ close oversight of the COE breeds conflicts of interest. The COE acts at the whim of AVMA leaders whose interests might conflict with the good of the profession and public.
•    The profession’s progress as a science-based medical profession is compromised due to the accreditation of substandard schools that lack robust research programs and the inadequate training of graduates.
•    The decision to accredit foreign veterinary schools was made unjustly by the AVMA Executive Board and not the COE. The decision is strongly opposed by many in the veterinary community.

USDE staff also had complaints of their own, chiefly the validity of using pass/fail rates of the North American Veterinary Licensing Examination (NAVLE) to assess the educational performance of programs.

In 2012, NACIQI pointed out that requiring an 80 percent NAVLE pass rate worked for domestic programs where the vast majority of graduates take the examination. However, it less accurately assesses foreign programs due to low numbers taking the test.

The AVMA has since tweaked the standard to better reflect the smaller pool of NAVLE test takers at overseas institutions. Even so, USDE staff remained unsatisfied with the changes.

Another standard that isn’t uniformly applied is the research requirement, the staff report said. “… This would be yet another example of a problem in applying the same standard for foreign and domestic schools, which further underscores third-party commenters concerns.”

USDE previously wasn’t focused on the AVMA’s overseas accreditation efforts, but that’s changed given a new federal mandate. By June 2015, foreign programs will need to be accredited in order to offer American students access to federal student aid.

The USDE has not yet named the evaluating bodies charged with accrediting those foreign programs.

“Although they are outside the scope of the recognition process, such allegations raise concerns regarding the agency’s operations and consideration of input of its communities of interest,” the report said. “Further notable is that American students attending foreign veterinary schools may be eligible for direct loans based on AVMA or other accreditation, and it therefore is of concern to the department.”

As long as the AVMA COE is accrediting foreign programs, “it will use an established, evidenced-based evaluation process subjected to independent, third-party review…” the report continued.

In a response published in the USDE staff report, AVMA officials stated that its foreign accreditation activities are outside of the USDE's purview. “As such, we believe this is a professional dispute that should be resolved within the profession,” the AVMA stated.

The AVMA attributed much of the criticism to a vocal faction of the profession that aims to protect the American workforce from oversaturation by slowing the entry of new graduates into the marketplace.

That’s an objective the AVMA must ignore, association leaders stated. “As a private accrediting agency subject to federal antitrust laws, we cannot make a determination about the number of types of veterinary schools based on concerns regarding the number of veterinarians in the United States.”

The AVMA also took issue with how the federal government tallied the critical feedback it received, but in the end, USDE staff insisted that their numbers were correct.

“The department has received approximately 935 comments; 98 in support of the agency (AVMA) and 837 against the agency,” the report said.

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