Trustees | Trusteeship

The real power grab at U.Va.

VIRGINIAN-PILOT   |  December 31, 2012 by Jane Tatibouet

Once again, all eyes are on the University of Virginia. Following months of speculation, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools’ accrediting body placed the elite flagship on warning.

After years of presiding over the obscenely escalating costs and declining standards of American higher education, the accreditors have found a scapegoat at U.Va.: the trustees.

As a former trustee myself—having served on Cornell’s Board of Trustees and the University of Hawaii Board—I can say this power play is absurd. It’s time for accreditors to take responsibility for their own neglect of duty.

Who are these accreditors?

Accreditors are supposed to protect students and taxpayers by ensuring that federal aid flows only to schools where students will get value for money, schools that will not defraud the student or the taxpayer. As gatekeepers for federal student aid money, they can effectively close a college with a stroke of the pen. Do they merit this authority?

Absolutely not.

Accreditors regularly allow schools to stay open and receive taxpayer dollars even when their graduation rates are abysmal and when there is little evidence of student learning. While accreditors have been in charge, ostensibly protecting the taxpayer, student loan debt soared to more than $25,000 per student, employers voiced their well-justified complaint that they can’t find qualified workers, and the exacting studies of NYU’s Richard Arum and U.Va.’s own Josipa Roksa showed that 36 percent of college students show no significant cognitive gains after four expensive years of college.

University of Pikeville in Tennessee and St. Augustine’s in North Carolina—both SACS accredited—barely manage to graduate after six years 30 percent of the full-time students who start there. Yet taxpayer dollars are still being poured into even low-achieving institutions, and students continue to borrow and borrow – with little reasonable expectation of getting a degree.

So much for protecting the taxpayer.

On the other hand, these accreditors do a fine job of guarding the status quo and their own organizational prerogatives.

For years, accrediting standards have been all about resources and administrative process. Accreditors have intruded where they are neither competent nor useful, demanding, for example, that a renowned Great Books college make its curriculum more open, or that the University of California Regents, confronting evidence of runaway administrative spending, should not speak harshly.

Now SACS, with an eye to the camera, observes of the U.Va. case, “It’s made too much publicity,” and jumps in on matters of governance and board prerogatives. SACS’ entrance into the matter has nothing to do with protecting students or taxpayers by guaranteeing educational excellence.

The U.Va. board assuredly deserves a failing grade for attempting to bring about change with neither community buy-in nor transparency. But now it is taking reasonable steps to analyze and remedy its missteps. The accreditors have no right or reasonable cause to supplant those who are, by statute, responsible. They have no right to create one more administrative distraction and bureaucratic hoop for trustees to jump through, rather than allowing them to focus on students and quality education.

Sadly, students and quality education will have to take a back seat as the accreditors stretch their bureaucratic muscles. Accreditors have clearly overstepped their authority. The fact that trustees have been on the sidelines too long—buffeted and bullied by the accreditors – is part of the reason we are seeing real problems now.

Jane Tatibouet is a former Hawaii state legislator and former trustee of the University of Hawaii and Cornell University.


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