Taking the credit
The revocation of the University’s accreditation would not be a well-tailored response to the events of the summer.
The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools has begun something of a correspondence with the University. On June 25 — just one day before University President Teresa Sullivan was reinstated — the association wrote her an inquiry disputing whether the University had remained in accordance with the body’s accreditation principles. In September, the association got a reply — a nine-page letter carrying typos and evasions overseen by John Simon, the University provost, on behalf of the Board of Visitors. There were concerns that the letter would not be enough; turns out, it was not, as the association wrote again in October announcing that it would continue its review of the University’s accreditation. Yet the association should base its decision on the relevant context of who was at fault and when. By doing so, the association will recognize that discrediting the University would largely damage only those groups uninvolved in Sullivan’s ouster.
The June letter from the association outlined the triad of guidelines it alleged the University broke. The University rebutted each grievance in turn in its September response. Yet, in the latest dispatch from the association — penned Oct. 5 and recently retrieved by The Daily Progress through the Freedom of Information Act — the agency said only one of its three concerns had been allayed, the one about the involvement of faculty. It still questioned whether the University had adhered to integrity and the possibility that the Board’s decision to oust Sullivan was made by just a minority. The University had done nothing to alleviate such qualms in its letter, with an explanation blaming the Board manual for its lack of procedural specifications for resignations of the University president.
But the Board has since taken the steps to correct this. In our editorial yesterday, we highlighted reforms the Board’s committees suggested that would clarify its Manual policies. Considering that this procedural hole was the association’s chief complaint, it would appear that the Board has responded not by letter but in action.
Indeed, the chief dilemma that the association must address is establishing a time period by which to judge the University’s negligence. Its letter makes mention of the University’s “ongoing compliance” with certain requirements, then redirects attention to the events in June. The association — and its Committees on Compliance and Reports that will review the University’s credentialized status this December — will have to better articulate the sequence of events it is judging. If the association is merely examining the crisis in June, the Board’s failure to abide by its rules is unchangeable. But if the timeline is expanded to the events thereafter, it must be acknowledged that the Board is improving.
The association should also consider its decision in the context of actors, and ask what sort of sanction would be tailored for the parties at fault. The accreditation stamp affects the whole University — especially students, whose financial aid opportunities and degree reputation will wane should the University be stripped of its status.
The association should recognize the range of its available options. Removing our accreditation has a blast radius that would damage the whole community. Instead, the association could issue some recommendations for either the Board to improve or the General Assembly to deny the reappointment of University Rector Helen Dragas in January. If anything, the Board’s procedural changes suggest more of the agency’s power rather than the Board’s self-initiated commitment to better its practice. By keeping us an accredited school, the association retains the possibility of helping University governance without dropping us altogether.