A team of accreditors descended on Charlottesville last week, demanding transparency but offering little of its own. They came to the university Thomas Jefferson founded to monitor its compliance with regulations handed down by the regional accreditor, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.
The storied University of Virginia has been “on warning” for nearly a year after SACS accused the Board of Visitors of not playing by the rules when it fired, and then rehired, President Teresa A. Sullivan.
For three days, the team from SACS engaged in closed-door meetings to ensure … what exactly?
Accreditation is designed to guarantee that federal student aid goes only to schools of educational quality. Were the accreditors truly considering stopping federal student aid to UVa? Of course not. But their visit offered a platform for grandstanding and roiling the campus, sending a not-so-veiled message that the faculty and administrators who largely comprise accrediting bodies are the ones in charge.
In this case, SACS was interested in matters of governance, investigating possible minority control and reasons the board had not notified the faculty of its plan to fire the president. Why a lengthy campus visit was needed is by no means self-evident. Since the beginning, the board’s plenary legal authority has been clear, and the institution already has clarified its policies. Meetings are open to the public and written policies are readily available on the UVa website.
Conversely, SACS’ process was closed to the public and there was no published agenda—especially ironic given the accreditors’ outspoken concern for the board’s lack of transparency.
When SACS first intervened, presidential recusal was deemed appropriate, since the investigation went directly to president-board relations. However, it now appears President Sullivan served as the primary point of contact for the institutional evaluation. What changed?
This isn’t the first time accreditors have interfered in institutional decision making. Accreditors use their Title IV gatekeeping powers to put pressure on colleges and universities. Some years ago, the Western regional accreditor chastised the University of California board for not playing nice with administrators when trustees attempted to implement modest changes to salaries and benefits. Some years earlier, it threatened to pull the accreditation of Thomas Aquinas College unless it made its classic Great Books reading list more “open.”
Accreditors operate as powerful regional cartels, whose processes are secretive and opaque. But if university trustees believe that their accrediting agency stifles innovation or interferes with the rights of the board, it is virtually impossible to switch to a different accrediting association. And few are willing to push back for fear they’ll lose access to federal financial aid.
Thomas Jefferson would have a fit if he knew that these unelected, unaccountable bureaucrats were able to supplant Virginians’ legally appointed trustees.
Worse, taxpayers and UVa students are having to pay for the privilege of SACS’ power play: meals and lodging at the Boar’s Head Inn, travel, administrative and clerical expenses—all part of the SACS visit. And this doesn’t begin to address the enormous general costs of “compliance” with the accreditation bureaucracy.
Records indicate that Stanford University recently spent more than $1 million for its reaccreditation efforts, and Duke University spent $1.5 million over two years. The University of Michigan—also a state flagship—spent $1.3 million on accreditation in 2010, not counting the time invested by faculty and staff. How much are Virginians spending—at a time when resources are increasingly pinched?
Meanwhile, tuition costs are going up—nearly 30 percent over the last five years in Virginia—while financial aid is being scaled back. UVa’s resources should be spent improving the education of students, not satisfying an accrediting agency determined to interfere in matters properly left to the Board of Visitors.
Data from UVa’s institutional assessment and studies office suggest UVa has some challenges on its hands. A writing assessment conducted in the College of Arts and Sciences, reported to the board in 2012, found that only 61 percent of fourth-year students were even competent and that only 8 percent were highly competent. A 2006 assessment of oral communication skills found that only 69 percent of upperclassmen rated competent or better. These were the types of questions of accountability that caused the kerfuffle a year ago regarding President Sullivan’s own competence and vision.
Accreditors are supposed to focus on educational quality. But, for decades, they have avoided those tough issues as costs have risen and quality declined. In Charlottesville last week, they manifested hyperactivity over governance and management issues; meanwhile, important academic quality issues went relatively ignored.
Students and taxpayers should demand sunshine on what these federally empowered bureaucrats are doing—at UVa and institutions around the country. It’s time for the public to say they’ve had enough of this intrusive and ineffective process.