Just when Penn Staters thought a death penalty imposed on the football program for several years would be the worst thing that could happen, a national higher-education accrediting body gave them a worse prospect to think about.
The Middle State Commission on Higher Education warned the university that it could lose its accreditation over its handling of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal. Despite that status, Penn State’s accreditation remains intact.
“It’s a pretty big deal,” said Molly Corbett Broad, president of the Washington, D.C.-based American Council on Education and former president of the University of North Carolina.
An Aug. 8 letter to university President Rodney Erickson warned Penn State about the status. The school was told to provide the commission with a report documenting steps it has taken to address the Middle States’ concerns about the school’s governance, finances and adherence to the integrity of its institutional mission and value by Sept. 30.
That will be followed by a campus visit by commission representatives. The commission’s next meeting will be in November, which is the earliest that action could be taken to remove the warning or take further action. A spokesman for the commission did not respond to requests for comment.
Blannie Bowen, Penn State’s vice president for academic affairs and the university’s accrediting officer, said an action by Middle States came as no surprise given the magnitude of the situation it is dealing with. He said he has been corresponding with the commission since the scandal began unfolding in November.
He believes the change in leadership in university administration and the board of trustees that have occurred since November answers the commission’s question about governance. As for the other areas of concern, he said the university is responding to many of the Freeh Report’s recommendations.
Anne Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni and member of the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity, which advises the secretary of education on accreditation issues, called the commission’s action yet another distraction for Penn State’s board.
“The fact that trustees have been on the sidelines too long is part of the reason we are seeing real problems now. Interference by outside groups—such as the NCAA and accreditors—simply create distractions from the real work of oversight that trustees alone can do. We have seen at Penn State what happens when trustees are marginalized. It’s time for trustees, without the meddlesome intrusion of accreditors, to do their job—which is to keep America’s colleges and universities the finest in the world,” Neal said.
The commission’s accreditation essentially serves as the U.S. Department of Education’s endorsement that the university delivers a valid educational product based on adherence to the commission’s standards.
Broad and Penn State officials remain confident that the university will satisfy Middle States’ concerns about institutional ethics and rid itself of the warning status when it emerges from this latest test. Penn State has been accredited since 1921, and university officials believe this is the first time its accreditation has been placed on warning status.
LVC received warning
While such warnings are rare, they are not unusual.
In the first half of this year, nine out of the more than 525 accredited institutions for which the commission is responsible in Delaware, the District of Columbia, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and other locations abroad were put on warning status.
One of them was Lebanon Valley College. The commission placed the college’s accreditation status in the warning stage in June after raising questions about its adherence to institutional and student-assessment standards.
Marty Parkes, LVC’s executive director for marketing and communications, said the school is addressing those concerns and developing a report for the commission that is due by March 1.
“We think by the time this is over we’re going to enhance our reputation and make us an even stronger institution. So we’re going to use it constructively,” Parkes said.
Broad said a significant number of colleges and universities have lost their accreditation during the commission’s 91 years. Mostly, though, they are small institutions where the loss of financial health has been the primary driver of their decline. She could not recall seeing a major flagship university such as Penn State finding itself in serious risk of losing its accreditation, she said.
“Mostly, that’s because the process of accreditation is to step in before it reaches that point,” Broad said.
In Penn State’s case, the commission is not questioning the educational quality or effectiveness of the institution. Rather, it is limiting its focus to the university’s institutional matters in light of the findings of the Louis Freeh Report and the financial penalties contained in the binding consent decree imposed by the NCAA on the football program.
The Freeh Report documented failures by top-level university administrators and athletic officials in responding to reports of sexual abuse of boys by Sandusky, a former assistant football coach. It also made recommendations for improving the governance structure and establishing university policies and practices to prevent a recurrence.
Sandusky was convicted in June of 45 counts of child sex abuse involving 10 boys over 14 years.
The NCAA issued sanctions that included a $60 million fine to prevent child abuse, a four-year postseason bowl ban, a loss of football scholarships and invalidating the football team’s 112 victories from 1998 to 2011.
Broad, of the American Council on Education, said, “Kudos to Penn State for putting it out there to make sure that nothing appears to be held back.”
She also praised Erickson for his management of the university through this difficult period.
“He’s provided the public with the assurance that Penn State has the financial capacity to manage their way through this circumstance, and actually, the recent actions of the board suggest that there is a healthy governance structure in place,” she said.