Awarding Degrees Without Permission

How can a public university open a campus in another state and issue diplomas without the permission of its own board or accreditor?
August 12, 2008

When a new campus opens, who is supposed to make sure that it has appropriate permission to educate students and award degrees?

Discussion of these questions frequently focuses on for-profit colleges, but this weekend, The News & Observer of Raleigh revealed that North Carolina Central University had operated a branch in a church outside Atlanta, and awarded degrees, without permission from either the University of North Carolina administration, or the university's accreditor. The program existed for four years and awarded about 25 bachelor's degrees in three fields -- bachelor's degrees that the university plans to honor, even as it shut down the program this summer on the order of its accreditor, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.

On Monday, officials at the university system pledged to figure out what happened and said explicitly that North Carolina Central had violated university rules by setting up an out-of-state program on its own. But also Monday, the pastor of the church where the program was located said he thought it would soon be up and running again.

The program North Carolina Central ran was called the New L.I.F.E. College, and it was housed at the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, one of the megachurches to be found outside Atlanta. The pastor of New Birth is Bishop Eddie Long, a North Carolina Central alumnus who recently donated $1 million to his alma mater.

Bishop Long, in an e-mail statement, said that the program originated because at "New Birth we are always looking for ways to empower our members and strengthen the community. We have partnered with several schools to offer higher education programs to our members including North Carolina Central University." He also said that he believed that "the accreditation issues will be resolved soon and that NCCU can once again offer their distance education program at New Birth."

New L.I.F.E. College awarded North Carolina Central bachelor's degrees in business administration, criminal justice and hospitality and tourism administration. The New Birth Voice, the church's magazine, in 2005 described the college as "the degree granting arm of New Birth's Christian Education Department" and part of the "Kingdom-building vision" of Bishop Long, which was that people should be able to earn degrees at the church.

The article also said that the courses offered at the church would have the same rigor and the same high quality faculty members as could be found at North Carolina Central's main campus. But the same article said that faculty members for the program in Georgia would be hired separately and that North Carolina Central faculty members would be sent to New L.I.F.E. if a professor was not available there. The requirements specified in the church's publication for faculty members are: "a master's degree and 18 postsecondary credits in the field that he or she will be teaching." In addition, the magazine notes that many of the professors for New L.I.F.E. "are members of New Birth who meet those requirements." The article goes on to say that the programs will be open to the community at large, and that one benefit will be "enabling the church to receive funds from the tuition generated."

Among the questions submitted by Inside Higher Ed to North Carolina Central was one about the church/state issues raised by having a public university award degrees for a program that is described as the arm of a church, for courses taught in a church, for which tuition revenue goes to a church. The university response said that question would have to be answered by the "previous administration" of the university. That was also the response to a question about why the university started the programs. The university statement said that the degrees were legitimate because they were awarded by North Carolina Central, which remains fully accredited. As to tuition revenue, the statement said it was placed in a trust account and used to support the program.

North Carolina Central is authorized by its university system board and accreditor to offer the kinds of degrees it offered in Georgia -- but only from its Durham campus. Accrediting rules specify that when colleges make significant changes in their offerings (and setting up a degree-awarding program at a new location out of state meets the criteria for such a change), they must seek the approval of the accreditor.

Joni Worthington, vice president for communications for the UNC system, said that it was "very clear" that North Carolina Central lacked the authority to operate the program in Georgia. She said that system officials learned of the program only when SACS objected to it this year. Generally, she said, UNC institutions do not offer degrees at campuses out of state. In a few "rare" circumstances where they do -- she cited work on military bases that has grown out of UNC ties to the military bases in North Carolina -- those programs have been carefully reviewed and approved by the university system, she said.

Worthington said that the university was still working "to sort through all the facts" and she noted that North Carolina Central has new leadership. James H. Ammons, who was chancellor when the program was set up, recently left to become president of Florida A&M University. Via e-mail, Ammons said that while he knows that anything that happened administratively while he was chancellor was "my responsibility," he "cannot recall all of the details regarding that particular program because I donÂ’'t get involved in the day-to-day operations of academic programs," leaving such matters to the provost and faculty.

The decision to let students who were awarded degrees keep them was made at the campus level, Worthington said. Asked whether that was appropriate for a program that was never approved, she said, "I can assure you that there will be a variety of issues that will be addressed thoroughly, and they are still assessing the facts,and all the various implications."

The Southern Association objected to the degree programs being offered this year without permission. Then when the university sought approval, a review by Southern resulted in the program being found deficient in terms of library resources, institutional effectiveness, faculty qualifications, and financial resources. A Southern official said it was possible that the programs offered in Georgia met standards, but that North Carolina Central never submitted evidence required to show that the program met any of the standards.

A statement issued late Monday by North Carolina Central said that "regrettably, the university did not seek appropriate approvals prior to launching the program." The statement suggested that the church should not be blamed for any of the concerns being raised. "The challenges associated with the accreditation of the New Birth program are those of North Carolina Central University, not of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church. The university accepts full responsibility for the situation," the statement said.

It turns out that North Carolina Central did seek -- and obtain -- permission from one agency to offer the degrees: the Georgia Nonpublic Postsecondary Education Commission. That body typically must approve for-profit or private colleges seeking to open in Georgia, but its authority also extends to public institutions from other states.

An official in the commission office, who asked not to be identified, said that no complaints had been received about the North Carolina Central programs offered in Georgia. He said that a key factor in granting approval was that North Carolina Central said that the relevant programs were accredited. The official said that Georgia never knew that the approval didn't extend to the programs being offered there, and only applied to those in North Carolina.

"If the programs and courses they present are approved by SACS, we accept it," he said.


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