Middle States Divided

Accrediting agencies are facing significant outside pressure over their independence and performance, raising questions in some quarters about the viability of education's system of institutional peer review. But one of the country's six regional accreditors of colleges is facing a threat from within, in the form of a nasty internal battle with its parent organization.

May 20, 2010

Accrediting agencies are facing significant outside pressure over their independence and performance, raising questions in some quarters about the viability of education's system of institutional peer review. But one of the country's six regional accreditors of colleges is facing a threat from within, in the form of a nasty internal battle with its parent organization.

The Middle States Commission on Higher Education, which accredits more than 500 colleges in Delaware, the District of Columbia, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, is at odds with the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools, which is asserting control over the college commission's finances, hiring and governance.

The disagreement has been brought to the attention of the U.S. Education Department, which has reportedly warned that the changes proposed by the parent association could threaten the higher education commission's compliance with federal requirements that it operate in a way that is "separate and independent" from other entities. A finding of such noncompliance could, in the extreme, result in a loss of the commission's federal recognition -- with serious implications for the institutions it accredits.

"The stakes in this matter are very high," a lawyer hired by the higher education commission wrote this spring. "If MSCHE loses its recognition status, the ability of the association's institutional members to qualify to award financial aid under Title IV [of the Higher Education Act] may be lost. Given that there are literally billions of dollars at stake, it would behoove the association to rethink its position and come together with MSCHE in order to achieve a good faith resolution of the issues."

All of the parties in the dispute either declined to comment on the situation (as was the case of leaders of the Middle States Commission, citing potential legal implications), or (in the case of officials of the Middle States Association) did not respond to repeated attempts to reach them.

But a string of documents that have flown back and forth, and in some cases out to the commission's members, lay out a power struggle with a long history and marked by increasing vitriol -- a marriage gone very wrong.

Connected but Not Commingled

Higher education accrediting groups are a mix of fully independent entities (like the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities and the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools) and those (such as the Commission on Institutions of Higher Education of the New England Association of Schools and Colleges) that are part of larger nonprofit corporations. Middle States has long been in the latter category.

But those parts are unequal, in many ways. Unlike in higher education, where institutions that are not accredited by the U.S. Education Department are not eligible to award federal financial aid to their students (and hence have great incentive to be accredited), elementary and secondary schools have no need to seek accreditation, and comparatively few do. In large part because of those differences, the higher education commission has historically had an operating surplus based on sizable dues (ranging from $1,000 to more than $20,000) charged to member colleges, while the elementary and secondary school commissions lose money.

In 1993, partly in response to 1992 changes in the Higher Education Act that required every higher education accrediting agency to be a "separate and independent" entity, the Middle States Association's Board of Trustees approved a resolution stating that "each commission ... will be responsible for and have control of its own finances" and "responsible for its own personnel matters, including recruiting, hiring and termination." In all of its recent reviews of the Middle States Commission, the Education Department has determined the accreditor to be "separate and independent."

But in recent months, as tensions between the association and the commission have been escalating, officials of the Middle States Association have taken a series of steps that put the commission's independence at risk, its leaders assert. (Reminder: Association officials did not respond to repeated invitations to offer their side of the story.)

According to documents obtained by Inside Higher Ed and to several people close to the situation, tensions between the groups -- mostly over finances -- were inflamed by several developments. Commission officials were angered by the association's "acquisition and outfitting" of a downtown condominium to house the accreditor's offices; commission officials say they have been unable to glean any details about the finances of the purchase. Association trustees, meanwhile, were reportedly "ballistic" over a severance agreement negotiated between the commission and Jean Morse, who resigned as its president last year.

In response to those and other disagreements, association officials sought to impose a set of new policies on the commission. First, they established a budget process in which the commission would have to seek approval from the Middle States Association's board for its annual budget and its proposed annual expenditures. The association is also proposing that the higher education commission seek approval for all of its hiring.

In addition, according to commission officials, the association "is no longer permitting CHE to collect dues from its member institutions separately and to have those funds segregated for CHE use only. Rather, MSA plans to pool all three commissions' dues and other revenues and take 'off the top' whatever it deems necessary to pay both for the condominium ... and for all other MSA expenses."

According to commission officials, the Middle States Association has also told the commission's acting president, Elizabeth Sibolski, that she will be treated as an "at will" employee -- and possibly fired -- if she chooses not to sign an employment contract that she reportedly found objectionable (Sibolski declined to comment).

And in a letter to the association's trustees, Michael F. Middaugh, who is both the commission's chairman and a member of the association's Board of Trustees, said that he had been told "that the latter role supersedes the former, and that as an MSA Trustee, my primary function is to represent the association as opposed to the commission, and to acquiesce on all trustee decisions, regardless of whether MSA actions are inconsistent with federal regulations and therefore may adversely affect the commission and its member institutions." (Middaugh, associate provost for institutional effectiveness at the University of Delaware, also declined to comment.)

The commission and the association have produced dueling analyses by lawyers about whether the various steps that the Middle States Association has proposed are legal and appropriate given the groups' bylaws and/or federal law. And after a last-ditch exchange of letters between Middaugh and Paul M. Seversky, president of the association's trustees, the commission's leaders took the unusual step last month of essentially turning itself in to the Education Department. In an April 5 letter to the head of the government's Accrediting Agency Evaluation Unit, Middaugh and R. Barbara Gitenstein, president of the College of New Jersey, said that they "may no longer be in compliance with some of the 'separate and independent' requirements in the federal recognition criteria."

"We have been unsuccessful in convincing MSA of the urgency of this matter, and it is clear that it intends to continue on a course that will bring CHE even further out of compliance with the regulations," they wrote. "Therefore, it is our obligation to report the situation to you."

An Education Department spokeswoman confirmed this week that "we received a letter from MSCHE that outlined issues regarding its inability to continue to comply with the Secretary's Criteria for Recognition... The letter is being treated as a complaint and the Department is conducting a review of the issues raised in the letter."

Commission officials told a roomful of college officials late last month that department officials had preliminarily concluded that the commission was out of compliance with the rules; the Education Department spokeswoman said its officials could not comment on any investigation at a preliminary stage.

Implications for Accreditation?

It's reasonable to ask at this point why anybody should care about the intense and seemingly petty bickering between accreditation officials, given the many other issues facing accreditors and college officials.

Apart from the seemingly low level risk that the feud might actually threaten the Middle States agency's ability to do its work and, in turn, the ability of its members to award federal financial aid, some of the restrictions the association has placed on the commission's ability to hire and spend money are starting to have an impact on the actual accreditation process, according to observers at Middle States. Some staff positions have gone unfilled, and funds that the commission would normally be spending on training volunteers for accrediting visits have been held back. "This is starting to interfere with the accrediting process," said one college leader at a Middle States-accredited institution.

Perhaps more importantly, though, the fact that accreditors face so many other challenges -- in the form of increased expectations (and skepticism) from federal officials, among other things -- is exactly the reason the internal foofaraw is so aggravating to some people in Middle States.

"Many of us are deeply troubled that [the commission] is spending so much time and energy engaged in a turf war with [the association] at the precise moment when the [Education Department] is focused on tightening its regulatory grip on institutions of higher education," an official at one college accredited by Middle States said via e-mail. "I would much prefer that our regional accrediting organization were fully engaged in thinking about what makes for responsible educational policy, rather than distracted by issues of governance that could have been resolved long ago."


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