The University of Virginia was put on warning Tuesday by an accrediting panel that found indications the school broke governance rules in a failed attempt to oust the prestigious public school’s president this summer.
The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools’ Commission on Colleges will send a special committee to the campus to further study whether U.Va. was out of compliance with two of the association’s rules, commission president Belle Wheelan said. The warning status announced at the association’s annual meeting will last 12 months, after which the panel will decide if further action is needed.
Wheelan said her group believes the school broke a rule that a minority of board members can’t be in charge and another rule that institutions should have a policy that identifies the faculty’s role in governance. Her group began looking at the actions of the school’s governing board after the intense media coverage of the attempted ouster of President Teresa Sullivan.
“Some of the articles said faculty didn’t know anything about this, they were caught completely off guard,” she said.
Wheelan said that questions to be answered by the committee will include: “Was this indeed just a minority of board members spearheading this?”
The University of Virginia’s governing board unexpectedly announced Sullivan’s resignation on June 10 in a move that caused uproar on the Charlottesville campus while most students were away on summer break. In defending the decision, board Rector Helen Dragas had said the university wasn’t acting quickly enough to address state and federal funding reductions, online education delivery and other challenges.
Sullivan, the first woman to head the university founded by Thomas Jefferson, was reinstated June 26 after large-scale protests, online petitions and angry calls by faculty, students, donors and alumni from across the country.
Wheelan said the commission sent the school a letter in June saying they might be out of compliance, and the school’s governing board sent a response “that we didn’t feel sufficiently responded to our inquiry.”
She said her group asked them for additional information in October and she then took the issue to her group’s board of trustees.
“Based on the information we had received, they decided they needed to put the institution on warning,” she said.
The warning notices are fairly common in higher education overall, though less so at prominent institutions like U.Va. They are typically resolved without punishment. Regional accrediting agencies—the bodies that typically accredit nonprofit universities like U.Va.—issued 73 notices or warnings to institutions over a two-year period covering 2010-2011, according to figures from the Council for Higher Education Accreditation. In 33 cases they put institutions or programs on probation, and in four removed accreditation.
Wheelan said her group will decide next December whether to take further action. That could include continuing the warning, putting the school on probation, revoking its membership or removing the warning.
Universities must be accredited by independent but government-designated organizations in order to receive federal student aid such as student loans and Pell Grants. A highly-regarded institution like U.Va. almost certainly faced no serious threat of losing that accreditation, but the agencies do often respond to governance concerns with a warning, as happened at Penn State after the child sex abuse scandal there.
John D. Simon, executive vice president and provost of the University of Virginia, issued a statement saying that while the decision is “disappointing,” they’ll “work diligently to address the concerns cited by the commission.
“For the past several months and in the spirit of continuous improvement, the Board of Visitors and University leadership have been proactively working together to review governance practices and policies to ensure the highest level of transparency, accountability and responsiveness to all those it serves,” he said.
In a statement on Tuesday, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell disagreed with the panel’s decision, saying a warning is “overly harsh.”
“The issues raised concerned board administrative procedures, not academic quality or faculty competence,” McDonnell said. “Thomas Jefferson’s university will continue to be a model of integrity and honor in the field of higher education for generations to come.”
Molly Broad, president of the American Council on Education said it is “standard practice” for accrediting association to step in and review institutions that exhibit “any number of problem areas.” In this case, Broad said the concern is over the university’s governance and “really had nothing to do with the academic quality of the university.”
“This warning is a reminder that the university is a public trust and that the governance responsibilities are shared among the rectors, and the president and the faculty,” Broad said. “It should be taken seriously, but in my view it’s a temporary setback for the university and with the solid support across the campus, I believe will quickly be in U.Va.’s rearview mirror.”
The American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a higher education nonprofit, called the association’s warning “nothing more than a bare-knuckled power play.”
“Accreditors are supposed to protect students and taxpayers ensuring that federal aid flows only to schools with ‘educational quality,'” said Anne Neal, president of the council. “How ironic that SACS, which is tasked with ensuring reasonable academic standards at the school it accredits, turns on the U.Va. board, which embraced such oversight as its fiduciary duty.”
Neal added that the association has “seriously overstepped” its bounds at U.Va. “Trustees—and the taxpaying public—should protest this misguided intrusion.”