A College's Surprising Reprieve

August 28, 2009

Lawsuits often paint a dire (and sometimes exaggerated) assessment of what will happen if the party doing the suing does not get its way.

But there was no hyperbole when Paul Quinn College noted in the lawsuit it filed Tuesday against the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, in its assertion that "the college will suffer catastrophic and irreparable harm ... [i]f the revocation of the college's accreditation is not reversed and its membership in SACS is not reinstated.... SACS's improper act could be the college's 'death knell.' "

Revocation of accreditation does usually portend the end for most colleges, and it still eventually could for Paul Quinn, too. But in a development that elated the Texas college's supporters and perplexed some legal observers, the Southern Association's Commission on Colleges and Paul Quinn jointly agreed Thursday to a federal judge's preliminary injunction that will protect the college's accreditation -- and in turn access to federal financial aid dollars for its students -- until the court rules some time in the future on the merits of the case. Paul Quinn has accused SACS of violating the college's due process rights and ignoring the accreditor's own procedures, in violation of federal law.

What's surprising is not that a court would stop a potentially damaging action from happening; judges frequently issue temporary restraining orders very early in legal cases, typically on an emergency and very short term basis, when one side argues that it (and frequently the public) faces grave danger if the court doesn't step in. Those emergency orders are sometimes followed -- usually a few weeks later, after both sides have had a chance to make initial arguments in a case -- by a preliminary injunction, which usually carries with it the court's impression that the plaintiffs have a "substantial likelihood" of winning the case on its merits.

On Thursday, though, the federal court in Atlanta, where the Southern accrediting association is based, went straight to a preliminary injunction, and did so with the backing -- and at the urging, lawyers for Paul Quinn say -- of the accreditor.

SACS had little to say about the legal development; as directed by the court's order, the accreditor posted a notice on its Web site saying that it had consented to the order "so as to protect the rights and interests of both parties during the legal proceedings." A lawyer for the association declined further comment, saying he did not talk about pending legislation.

The lead lawyer for Paul Quinn showed no such hesitation. Bill Brewer, a Dallas lawyer who is representing the historically black college, said that after Paul Quinn filed the lawsuit late Tuesday, he got a call from "the other side" asking what the college's intentions were. Brewer said he told representatives of Southern that Paul Quinn wanted everything it asked for in its lawsuit: a restraining order, a preliminary injunction and eventually a permanent injunction barring SACS from stripping Paul Quinn's accreditation, an acknowledgment that the accreditor violated the law, plus legal fees and "any other relief" the court sees fit to award.

As Brewer tells it, negotiations ensued, and the accreditor then offered to move straight to a preliminary injunction. "I take it that the lawyers who are representing did a very good job representing their client," Brewer said. "They seem to have recognized that it was highly likely that we would obtain the injunctive relief we sought." Drawing an analogy to chess, Brewer noted that "two people who really understand the game very rarely play it out to checkmate.... The most sophisticated thing SACS could do was agree to the relief we sought, without wasting a lot of the court's time, their time, and our time."

Brewer's admittedly biased assessment aside, judging the validity of Paul Quinn's claims is difficult if not impossible for an outsider. But the legal complaint asserts that SACS violated its own standards and policies in several instances. Among them, Paul Quinn alleges, SACS' college commission based its recommendation for removing accreditation on a committee's misunderstanding of key aspects of its finances, excluded written testimony offered by Paul Quinn on appeal, and failed to provide college officials with the full record of evidence on which the accreditor denied the appeal. Paul Quinn also accuses SACS of changing some requirements midstream and of failing to consider new financial information about the college on appeal.

Brewer's assertion that SACS made a concession to Paul Quinn because of the strength of the college's case (or the perceived vulnerability of its own) is self-serving, but it is fact that, as he and other legal observers note, the Southern accrediting association has had a tough time of it in the courts of late. In 2005, SACS reinstated Edward Waters College after a judge issued a preliminary injunction based on a "substantial likelihood" that the Florida historically black college would prevail at trial. And it has been sued, to varying degrees of success, by other colleges, too, in the last several years.

It is possible, Brewer and other legal analysts said, that the Southern association is learning to rethink its strategy. "Smart and sophisticated people learn," Brewer said. "The definition of insanity is just to continue doing the same thing again and again. They clearly didn't do that here; they learned by the past."

Whatever the Southern association's motivations, Thursday's developments have given Paul Quinn another chance, at least for the short term. The college's legal complaint said that 200 of its students from last year had declared that they wouldn't return this year, and that 550 of the 650 students it admitted new for this fall had said they would not enroll.

The college plans to begin classes October 5, and as of Thursday afternoon, its Web site had begun trumpeting, "APPLICATIONS ARE CURRENTLY BEING ACCEPTED for FALL 2009!!"

Whether and how quickly it can woo students back and reassure them that Paul Quinn will continue to be viable as it fights for its permanent re-accreditation is uncertain.

But the college's president, Michael Sorrell, said Paul Quinn officials were "incredibly excited about this news" and were confident that they would ultimately be able to make the case to the Southern association that the institution -- which has turned over almost its entire senior management since 2007 -- has turned a corner, if it just gets a little more time.

"We understand that people haven't seen [someone do before] what we've done here," Sorrell said. "We have always viewed SACS as a collegial body, and we would hope that somewhere in this process that showed up" in the accreditor's decision regarding the lawsuit.

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