Prism Magazine - February 2002
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Web Extra

Incompatible roles for ABET

The Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET), as its Web site makes clear, is an organization with two general purposes. On the one hand it serves to accredit programs in engineering and technology. On the other hand it has a mission to act as a driving force for innovation and improvement in engineering education. These are both worthy aims, but they should not be pursued by the same organization. There is a conflict of interest between them.

ABET not only wants to improve engineering education but has a particular view of how the improvement should be achieved. Since the same organization has the right to decide whether a program is acceptable or not, it is clear that, in effect, it forces all of us to adopt the same view of how engineering education should be made better. We are forced to listen to and adopt the ideas of ABET with regard to innovation because of the monopoly status that ABET wields. Now I do not say that the ideas espoused by ABET are bad. Quite the contrary, they are very good. But they are not the only good ideas. It is quite unacceptable that we should all be pushed into the same mold.

Consider an example. Suppose that in a particular field of engineering, university X has the best program in the country. University X will still fail in their bid for accreditation if they do not show that they have consulted adequately with the people ABET considers to be "stakeholders". Does this lack of input from stakeholders, in and of itself, mean that graduates of the program are inadequately prepared to work as engineers? Surely it does not.

Another example. The students in professor Y's course on thermodynamics learn the material very well. Better, in fact, than in most such courses. However, professor Y does not wish to write an explicit list of objectives for his course. While recognizing that it can be a valuable exercise, he has tried it in the past and found that it does not suit his teaching style. Should the program be denied accreditation for this reason? Surely not, but that is a likely outcome if professor Y sticks to his guns.

The result of the dual mission of ABET is that the accreditation process is corrupted. The recommendations of ABET inspectors fall into two classes: The appropriate and useful (your program needs more ...) and the improper (you have not done what we tell you to...). Unfortunately, it seems that they are equally likely to lead to unfavorable outcomes in the accreditation process.

ABET believes that it knows how we should do our jobs and will make sure that we do it their way. While it is true that their ideas have merit as well as being fashionable, it is outrageous that an organization whose role is to accredit engineering programs should force us into adopting their ideas.

Disclaimer: The engineering college at my university has just completed an ABET exercise. The remarks made here were not made as a result of that ABET visit. The ideas were formed before I became involved in the ABET process and in no way reflect specifically on the visit to this university.

Alwyn Eades
Professor, Materials Science and Engineering
Lehigh University