ACTA in the News | Accreditation

Questions for UNC’s Accreditor

A bullying threat to Chapel Hill’s trustees over the new School of Civic Life and Leadership may get a higher review.
WALL STREET JOURNAL   |  February 28, 2023

We told you recently about the University of North Carolina’s plans to establish a school for free expression and its accreditor’s brisk announcement that it would investigate that action. Now it looks like the accreditor may be the one answering questions about its bullying.

The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACS) is the accreditor for UNC. SACS President Belle Wheelan told the Governor’s Commission on the Governance of Public Universities last month that the UNC trustees’ vote to create the school was “kind of not the way we do business” and that SACS would “talk to them . . . and either get them to change it, or the institution will be on warning with [SACS], I’m sure.”

Ms. Wheelan is now learning that the accreditor has an accreditor too. In a letter to the Department of Education’s National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI), committee member Michael Poliakoff requests a review of SACS and its actions surrounding the UNC School of Civic Life and Leadership. Ms. Wheelan had informed the Governor’s Commission that the school would be getting a letter of inquiry from SACS before the UNC trustees had received it, and before she had read the trustee’s proposal.

Reports “of the unprofessional behavior of SACSCOC’s president, Dr. Belle Wheelan,” Mr. Poliakoff writes, “make it incumbent upon NACIQI to exercise its oversight of the accreditor.” Not doing so would “erode public confidence in NACIQI’s commitment to its statutory duty.” In other words, when an objective accreditor begins to sound like it’s pushing a political agenda, it’s time for adult oversight.

SACS is accredited by the Department of Education every five years and it must be “a reliable authority to determine the quality of education or training in accordance with the Higher Education Act,” Mr. Poliakoff writes. Ms. Wheelan’s skepticism of the new school parroted faculty complaints without independent judgment. Her actions also indicate a “misunderstanding of the duty of higher education governing boards to ensure that their institutions operate under the highest standards of academic excellence,” his letter says.

Accreditors like SACS are powerful because their approval lets UNC and other schools qualify for federal dollars. But NACIQI is responsible for making sure the accreditors are operating with integrity and objectivity.

Threatening UNC’s accreditation over its attempt to create an academic environment for debate and civic life would strike most Americans as laughable, since that’s the core of what universities are expected to provide. A recent poll by Centiment shows that 73% of North Carolinians agree that Chapel Hill should promote freedom of thought and speech, and 72% say diversity of viewpoint is “a very important form of diversity for all colleges and universities.”

Taxpayers also like the idea of the new school. Two-thirds say they support the creation of a special school “to teach the skills of civic discourse and respectful debate.” Less than 10% didn’t like the idea. Nearly 75% said they believe students at taxpayer-funded universities “deserve to hear both sides of important political questions.”

Ms. Wheelan gave the Governor’s Commission a list of “What a Trustee is NOT,” so we’d suggest she review What an Accreditor is NOT. That would include One Who Runs the Institution.

This article originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal on February 28, 2023.


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