The agency that accredits Southern colleges and universities is scrutinizing the Governor Robert Bentley’s role at the head of Alabama university boards, pushing back on what it sees as powers that are too concentrated and potentially conflicted.
In doing so, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools’ Commission on Colleges sparked criticism that it is misguided and is straying away from its primary mission. It has also stoked conversation about accreditors taking a more active role in governance issues just months after the accreditor waded into a bitter dispute over the composition of the Board of Trustees at the University of Louisville in nearby Kentucky.
The SACS college commission outlined its concerns in Alabama in a Jan. 10 letter. The accreditor had reviewed a new governance structure for Alabama’s community and technical colleges that was created after state legislators passed a bill in 2015 creating a new Alabama Community College System. The new law dictates that the governor will act as ex officio president of the community college system’s board and that he will appoint its other nine members. Outside of the community college system, the governor appoints most of the members of institutions’ governing boards, but he does not appoint all of them.
During its review, the accreditor’s board said that Bentley’s dual role as chair and selector of other members presented a conflict of interest.
“The SACSCOC Board perceives that this presents a conflict of interest in that the governor also appoints the members of that [community college] board, and has ultimate budget authority over all of the institutional budgets,” said the letter, signed by the accreditor’s president, Belle S. Wheelan. “Upon further review, it also became apparent that the governor is the chair of the board of every state college or university in the state of Alabama. I am asking that the Alabama Legislature enact legislation within the state removing the governor from that position.”
SACSCOC addressed the letter to the chairs of Alabama’s Senate Education and Youth Affairs Committee and its House Education Policy Committee. It also sent the letter to the State Senate’s president pro tempore, the Speaker of the state House of Representatives, the community college system’s interim chancellor, presidents of Alabama’s community colleges and U.S. Representative Bradley Byrne.
Still, the accreditor’s Board of Trustees voted in December to continue accreditation for institutions in the Alabama Community College System.
The acting chancellor of the Alabama Community College System, Jimmy Baker, issued a statement expressing concern.
“The letter from Dr. Wheelen [sic], president of SACSCOC, that has been sent to the legislators is a concern of the Alabama Community College System because accreditation for educational courses is part of our mission,” he said. “The letter raises the concerns to the level of the Alabama Legislature. At this time, we do not know the intent of the legislative body. We understand that there will be meetings with legislators scheduled for future discussions with SACSCOC.”
Bentley, a Republican, blasted the accreditor’s letter in a statement.
“We disagree strongly with the assumption that the governor has undue influence on boards of institutions,” said Bentley. “It appears the recommendations outlined in this letter are misguided and politically motivated. The placement of the governor on the board is set up by statute and by our Constitution, and I’m going to obey our Constitution.”
Alabama’s long and often-modified Constitution specifically calls for the governor to serve as ex officio president of the Board of Trustees for the University of Alabama and Auburn University. The governor serves on other public university boards under state statutes. Bentley is listed as a member of the state’s other institutions’ governing boards as well, typically as an ex officio member and sometimes as president.
Also raising questions about the SACSCOC action was Republican State Senator Dick Brewbaker, who chairs the Senate’s Education and Youth Affairs Committee. He said that Alabama has a weaker governor than many other states, lowering the position’s ability to concentrate power over a university or system.
“This is an old, old practice, and it doesn’t just exist in Alabama,” he said. “The governor in Alabama doesn’t have a real veto. It only takes a simple majority to override, which is the same as it takes to pass a bill. So the idea that the governor can throw his weight around and significantly affect a particular college’s budget is just not accurate.”
Brewbaker also pointed out that Alabama isn’t the only state where the governor serves on university boards. Just to the north, Tennessee’s governor serves on the University of Tennessee Board of Trustees, along with members the governor appoints. But SACSCOC is not reviewing other state systems for issues similar to the ones it identified in Alabama.
The Association of Governing Boards of Colleges and Universities has compiled a database on public governing boards in different states. According to that database, governors serve as ex officio with vote in 11 states, including Alabama. They serve without a vote in five others.
Wheelan denied the Alabama governor’s claim that SACSCOC’s interest in Alabama’s higher ed governance is politically motivated. Concerns over governance might not be as pronounced if the specifics of the situation were different, she said — such as if the governor served on a board alongside elected members. And while SACSCOC understands institutions must live within a state’s rules, it is asking for a reconsideration of Alabama’s rules.
SACSCOC does not accredit systems of education, but it wants to hear from each individual institution’s president on how they are still in compliance with governance standards requiring no undue political influence.
“If they can explain it, I’m sure my board will back off,” Wheelan said. “But right now, it’s an anomaly for us.”
Wheelan declined to speculate about potential SACS action, like placing Alabama institutions on probation. Any threat to accreditation is serious for colleges and universities, because an institution must be accredited to receive federal student aid.
SACSCOC is not studying other states for issues similar to those in Alabama.
“We’re not looking for it,” Wheelan said. “It happened to surface when we were doing our due diligence with them. It’s not a witch hunt.”
Yet some faculty members say they’ve never seen evidence of political tampering in Alabama. John Mayer is a professor and associate chair of mathematics at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and he chairs the institution’s Faculty Senate. “There has been no undue political influence on the UAB board that I’m aware of in the 32 years I’ve been at UAB,” he said.
Others fear SACSCOC’s actions signal misplaced effort. Michael B. Poliakoff, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, said accreditors are spending more energy on issues of politics and governance at a time when they have work to do on the core function of educational quality.
Accreditors should recognize that the governor is an accountable figure elected to see to the well-being of public institutions, Poliakoff said. He believes accreditors should sound alarm bells on governance issues when appropriate, but not for what he termed a “vague fear” of political infiltration.
“There should always be an eye kept on politicization of the academy,” Poliakoff said. “But that’s not what we’re talking about here. What we’re talking about here is the accreditor focusing on its own power, rather than academics.”
But others voiced concern that a governor serving as board chair could harm the free flow of ideas, particularly in U.S. higher education, where governing boards are insulated from government and politics.
Association of Governing Boards President Rick Legon worried about the practice of a governor sitting on a board as its president or chair. Doing so is at odds with effective governance and does not fit with the principles of fiduciary oversight, he said.
Boards as fiduciaries need to maintain their own autonomy, he said. That means independence from the authority that appoints members.
“The governor of a state should not be holding the gavel of a board that is sworn to serve and demonstrate — or have in practice — a high degree of autonomy to make the best decisions on behalf of the institutions,” he said. “It’s just a little bit too close to have the chief executive of the state, who wields so much power, direct or indirect, [as] chair of that same body.”
AGB has observed a number of instances where governance issues create uncertainty in state higher education — like Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin overhauling Louisville’s troubled board in a move that wound its way through the courts and eventually prompted an attempted resolution through legislative action. SACSCOC placed Louisville on probation following that governance fight.
Currently, states are challenging their public institutions to be more cost-effective, more sensitive to price, more aware of completion rates and committed to addressing numerous other pressures, Legon said. At times, policy leaders end up disrupting effective governance.
Legon believes accrediting agencies have a role to play in addressing those disruptions.
“I actually applaud accrediting agencies when they hold up, as part of their process, standards related to governance,” Legon said. “They have leverage that AGB doesn’t have, but we frequently find ourselves in lockstep, not just with [Wheelan] and SACS, but with other accrediting agencies that stand up and have the sanctioning power to point out risks associated with governance structures or changes.”