U.S. Department of Education officials announced last month that the University of Virginia’s accrediting agency did not break any federal laws when it placed the public institution “on warning” for violations related to the U-Va. governing board ousting and then reinstating the university’s president in June.
The decision was in response to a complaint filed by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, an activist group that has pushed college governing boards across the country to assert more control over their institutions. The group, known as ACTA, appealed the decision last week.
ACTA officials have publicly supported the U-Va. Board of Visitors’ actions last summer and applauded the reappointment and confirmation of board leader Helen E. Dragas, writing in a statement: “Bravo, legislature, governor and trustees!”
The group has also long been critical of accrediting agencies, which operate regionally or nationally to ensure colleges and universities meet what federal officials refer to as “acceptable levels of quality.” In most cases, schools must be accredited to receive federal funding. ACTA officials have asserted that accreditation is an “expensive, counterproductive system” that needs to have higher standards, especially for graduation rates and education quality.
Late last year, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACS-COC) placed U-Va. “on warning” for violating compliance standards related to faculty involvement in governance and governance requirements, including one that forbids a minority of board members controlling the board. An investigative team is scheduled to visit the university in Charlottesville later this year.
On Dec. 31, ACTA President Anne D. Neal filed a complaint against SACS-COC with the Department of Education, saying that the actions taken against U-Va. fell “outside the accreditor’s legitimate authority and constitute a blatant intrusion into governance powers.” (Neal’s daughter, Alexandra Petri, works for The Post’s editorial department.)
Acting Assistant Secretary for Postsecondary Education David A. Bergeron responded to the complaint in a letter dated Feb. 11 , according to a copy provided to The Post by ACTA. In the letter, Bergeron wrote that accrediting agencies are “private, voluntary membership organizations” and the department is “expressly barred from dictating agency accrediting standards.” Bergeron noted that the department has not received any complaints from U-Va. or its accrediting body.
“In sum, we believe we understand, and we respect, your views as to the important roles of boards of trustees in governance and oversight,” Bergeron wrote. “[H]owever, we have concluded that no violation of federal law has occurred.”
On Friday, ACTA appealed to Education Secretary Arne Duncan and asked him to reverse the determination. Neal wrote in a letter to Duncan dated March 8 that accrediting agencies are undermining the independence of colleges and universities.
“Accreditors’ interference in institutional governance may be common,” Neal wrote, “but it is also wrong and should end.”
I reached out to spokespeople at SACS-COC, U-Va. and the Department of Education for comment Tuesday morning and have not yet heard back from anyone.