Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism has let its accreditation lapse.
Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism has let its accreditation lapse. – Miles Bryan

The Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University recently took an unusual step for a top-rated program — it allowed its accreditation to lapse.

As of May 1, Medill is no longer accredited through the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications, a nonprofit organization that reviews journalism programs across the country on a voluntary basis, usually once every six years.

“We find little value in the current version of accreditation,” Medill Dean Brad Hamm wrote in a note to students, pointing out that University of California, Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism also recently dropped its accreditation.

“As we near the 2020’s, we expect far better than a 1990’s-era accreditation organization that resists change … Medill ranks among the best in the world. Investing 18 months and hundreds of hours of faculty and staff time within the current flawed system is not useful,” Hamm wrote.

Hamm canceled an interview to talk further about the decision and would not reschedule.

Medill professor Loren Ghiglione, who served as dean of the school from 2001-2006, supported the move.

“[Medill]’s a very ambitious school,” Ghiglione said. “And I don’t think that the accrediting council imprimatur works … to boost its reputation or affect its decision to be innovative.”

But the head of the accrediting council said the process is still very relevant. 

“Yes, it’s time consuming,” said Peter Bhatia, president of the accrediting council, “because accreditation is supposed to be rigorous. It’s like respect — it’s not awarded, it’s earned.”

Bhatia said that the accrediting council is keeping up with journalism’s move toward digital. And he argued that in this time of “fake news” and intense pressure on journalists, the fundamentals of the craft that accreditation focuses on are more important than ever. 

But Bhatia said he doesn’t think Medill is now going to lose out on top students or professors because of its decision.

Neither does Kelly Mcbride, vice president of the Poynter Institute, a national media think tank.

“Northwestern has a fabulous reputation,” she said. “They put out really cool journalists who go into the field and do really cool things. And that’s not going to change.”

McBride said she does not expect journalism schools to start fleeing accreditation en masse. She said the process is a selling point for some school administrators and grant writers, and is particularly beneficial for smaller journalism schools that do not have a stellar reputation to lean on.

But McBride, who said she graduated from the University of Missouri’s journalism program, said accreditation is ultimately not a big factor for employers.  

“The reputation of the University of Missouri is what got me my first job, not the fact that it had accreditation,” she said.