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The Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools has put five colleges on probation, three because of financial instability and two because of questions about their institutional effectiveness, officials of the accrediting agency said Thursday. As has become common in this region, several of the punished institutions are historically black.

The regional accreditor placed or continued 13 other institutions on warning status at its just-concluded meeting, at least two of them -- including high-profile Miami Dade College -- because they could not document that they had sufficient numbers of full-time faculty members.

Some of the actions seemed predictable given the institutions' well-publicized woes in recent months. Saint Paul's College, which the association had placed on probation last year because of its continuing financial problems, was continued for another 12 months in that status -- the accreditor's most serious short of stripping accreditation -- for falling short of the agency's standards on financial resources, financial stability, institutional effectiveness of administrators and educational support services, and qualified administrative and academic officers, among others, said Belle S. Wheelan, president of the SACS college commission. The college has made a series of steps -- most recently ending its intercollegiate athletics program -- to improve its financial standing.

The other two institutions cited for financial instability are, like Saint Paul's, historically black colleges: North Carolina's Bennett College for Women and Tougaloo College, in Mississippi. Bennett has struggled for years with financial (and administrative) difficulties, but it was reaccredited by the Southern association in 2009. But the college ran afoul of the accreditor's standard on financial stability, said Wheelan.

Bennett's president, Julianne Malveaux, said in an e-mailed statement that the college had experienced "unprecedented expansion" in the last several years, and that she was disappointed that "in the midst of this phenomenal progress, SACS has chosen to place us on probation for several one-time occurrences that placed us in a difficult financial position in 2010." Bennett officials, she said, are confident that they will be able to demonstrate to the Southern accreditor that "the 2010 irregularities were just that, irregularities that are not part of our permanent fiscal picture or systemic in any fashion."

SACS placed Tougaloo on warning status in 2009, but reaffirmed its accreditation without sanction last June. But it, too, fell short of the financial stability standard, Wheelan said Thursday. "With a lot of these places, it's an up and down kind of thing," she said.

Beverly W. Hogan, Tougaloo's president, said via e-mail Thursday night that its officials could not "respond appropriately" to the SACS decision until they receive the official letter about the probation.

Another historically black university that has had high-profile financial difficulties was one of the 13 institutions that received a warning from SACS: Fisk University. The institution has been in the headlines on and off for the last two years because of its protracted legal battle to win the right to sell off its prized collection of modern art, a move that its officials deemed necessary for its financial future.

Wheelan, who has grown accustomed to reporters' questions about the prevalence of historically black institutions on its watch lists, didn't wait for a question this time around. She explained that many of the black colleges in the region became members of the accrediting group at roughly the same time, at a time that puts them on a cycle to be reviewed (on SACS' 10-year cycle) early in each decade.

Other Actions

Birmingham-Southern College's much-publicized financial missteps -- the institution acknowledged last spring that it had for years overspent its budget by millions -- brought it a warning from Southern for financial and management concerns.

And two institutions -- Miami Dade and Texas A&M University-Commerce -- drew warnings because SACS questioned whether they had adequate numbers of full-time faculty members. Wheelan said that issues related to the potential overdependence on part-time faculty members are arising "more and more," in many cases driven by institutional efforts to cut spending. She said some cases, however, arise because institutions do not have adequate program-level data to prove that they are mixing part-time and full-time professors appropriately to "carry out their missions." In Miami Dade's case, the warning is imposed only for six months, she said, to give it time to produce such data.

A Miami Dade spokesman, Juan Mendiata, said via e-mail that the college disagrees with the accreditor's judgment and "is preparing a response with its objections."

The other institutions placed on warning status by SACS this week are:

  • Barton College, in Georgia
  • Bauder College, in Georgia
  • Brewton-Parker College
  • Florida Christian College
  • McDowell Technical Community College, in North Carolina
  • Mount Olive College
  • Pamlico Community College
  • Southern University at Shreveport, in Louisiana
  • Virginia Intermont College

The Southern association also removed four colleges from its sanction list. Concordia College, in Alabama, was restored to good standing after having been placed on probation last year for financial problems (reinforcing Wheelan's point about ups and downs).

Three colleges -- Erskine College; Jefferson State Community College, in Alabama; and Randolph Community College, in North Carolina -- were taken off the warning list. Erskine had been placed on the list because of governance turmoil related to questions about the influence of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church over its operations. While SACS's action suggests its peer reviewers' faith that Erskine has worked through those issues, skirmishing continued as recently as last month over the role of the church.

Wheelan said the large number of actions the accreditor took at its June meeting did not suggest tougher enforcement of its standards, but rather just a large group of institutions up for review. The percentage of colleges placed on probation or warning was not bigger than normal, she said.

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