A Watchdog Bites

Southern accreditor puts 10 colleges on probation, including Louisville for its governance problems, several for-profit art schools for financial woes and new University of Texas campus for an array of shortcomings.

December 7, 2016
 

Who says accreditors too rarely punish the colleges they oversee?

The Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools emerged from its biennial meeting this month by placing 10 colleges and universities on probation, including the University of Louisville, which has endured a monumental governance fight, and the University of Texas's new campus in the Rio Grande Valley, which was cited for an unusually long list of shortcomings as it sought accreditation for the first time.

Eight other colleges -- including three colleges in the for-profit Art Institutes chain and two historically black institutions -- also were placed or continued on probation, mostly for financial problems. One of them, Bennett College for Women, has bounced on and off probation for more than a decade.

Louisville is by far the highest-profile institution sanctioned by SACS, though the action was hardly surprising given the turmoil that has enveloped the university in the last year. In fact, the accrediting agency warned in August that the move last summer by Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin to abolish and replace Louisville's Board of Trustees threatened to put the university out of compliance with the agency's standards governing external influence, due process for dismissing board members and selection of a president.

A state judge in September blocked Bevin's attempt to reconstitute the board, saying it violated state law designed to insulate public institutions from partisan politics. But blocking that move did not appear to resolve the accreditor's worries about Louisville's governance woes, which predated and extended beyond Bevin's intervention. The Republican governor acted amid intense division within Louisville's board over the fate of then President James Ramsey, whose long tenure had devolved into a series of controversies.

In placing the university on probation for a year (with a possible one-year extension), the Southern commission said Louisville had violated its requirements and standards concerning proper functioning of a governing board, evaluation and selection of the chief executive officer, external influence, and board dismissal. A statement from the university said that upon receiving explicit guidance from SACS in January about how it fell short of the accreditor's standards, the university would take steps to reassure the commission that it had addressed "the concerns that have been raised."

Officials from Louisville said they could not comment further on the accreditor's action.

Trouble in Texas

The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley is a major experiment -- an effort to merge multiple institutions on Texas' southern border to try to better serve residents of one of the state's most underprivileged regions. But to judge by SACS's laundry list of areas in which the new institution is falling short of the accreditor's requirements and standards, UT Rio Grande Valley appears to be a work in progress.

A spokeswoman for SACS cited a full 10 major areas in which the new Texas campus had faltered, including such basic things as assuring that it "operates with integrity in all areas." Other areas of difficulty included complying with federal financial aid audits and ensuring that the institution's degrees are based on instruction it offers itself (rather than by other institutions).

A statement from the university attributed the accrediting problems to "timing issues" in the "complex process" that led to the university's creation, which required the merger of two institutions and the dissolution of a partnership between a two-year and four-year institution that made up one of the merged universities. "The latter created issues in meeting the transition timeline set forth in the legislation that created UTRGV," Guy Bailey, president of the Rio Grande campus, said in the statement.

The other colleges placed on probation by SACS this week, and the reasons for the probation, are:

  • Art Institute of Atlanta (finances)
  • Art Institute of Houston (finances)
  • Bennett College for Women (finances and governing board issues)
  • Bethel University (definition of the credit hour)
  • Miami International University of Art and Design (finances)
  • St. Augustine College (finances)
  • South University (finances)
  • Spring Hill College (finances)

The Southern association also removed two institutions from probation: Kentucky Wesleyan College and the University of Tennessee at Martin.

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