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One needn't look very hard these days to find evidence of significant intervention by state politicians in public university matters -- or of accrediting agencies questioning those politicians' decisions. Just in the last two weeks, regional accreditors in the Southeast and the Northwest, respectively, issued warnings that decisions by the governors of South Carolina and of Alaska could threaten the continued good standing of their states' universities.

The accreditors' recent actions drew the attention this week of the federal panel that advises the U.S. education secretary on accreditation, prompting it to appoint a special subcommittee to explore the issue. And the federal panel's members appear to have divergent views about what they hope the subcommittee will say and do -- with some wanting the accreditors to zealously block politicians' excessive interference in the governance of public universities, and others believing the agencies have no role in doing so.

The issue arose during the twice-yearly meeting of the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity, known familiarly as NACIQI (nuh-seek-ee). The panel reviews accrediting agencies and makes recommendations to the education secretary about which ones it should recognize as gatekeepers to federal financial aid. It also at times explores accreditation issues of interest to the executive branch in charge at the moment.

At this week's meeting in the D.C. suburbs, the panel was reviewing the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools' Commission on Colleges. Its president, Belle Wheelan, had responded last month to local reporters' questions about accusations that Governor Henry McMaster had inappropriately influenced the University of South Carolina governing board's selection of a new president. A divided board ultimately approved Robert L. Caslen as president; the chair of the South Carolina board insisted that McMaster had not inappropriately pressured the board.

Wheelan told reporters that while McMaster was an ex officio (nonvoting) member of the university's board, it would be inappropriate for him to use his role as governor to influence the board -- and that doing so could put the university's accreditation at risk.

“While the governor is a member of the board, he has no more of a role than any other member of the board,” Wheelan told local reporters.

During NACIQI's review, one of its members, Anne D. Neal, co-founder of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, asked Wheelan why she had intervened in the South Carolina matter.

"I wanted to examine what appeared to be an overreach by them and a violation of their own standards," Neal said in an interview Wednesday. She questioned how the governor of a state, as a member of the university's board, could ever be seen as an "external influencer" who could exert "undue [political] influence."

Neal, who has long been critical of accreditation, said she questions whether SACS and other accreditors should have standards about issues such as governance that technically fall outside the core of their focus on educational quality.

"As we discussed it, more and more members of NACIQI became interested in the appropriateness of accreditors engaging in political process matters that are dictated by state law," Neal said.

Some NACIQI members agreed that the committee should explore the appropriate role of accreditors in dealing with political influence at public universities -- but they offered a very different perspective on what they hoped would come from it.

Jill Derby, a former regent of the Nevada System of Higher Education who is a senior consultant for the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, said she believed it was wholly appropriate -- and desirable -- for accreditors both to have standards on political interference and to call out politicians who overstep their bounds.

"We're seeing this undue political influence arise many times and in many places," Derby said, noting that she was speaking in her role at AGB, not her capacity as a member of NACIQI. Trustees or regents often struggle to push back against undue political involvement themselves, she said, "because they’re talking to their funding source."

Accreditors are often better positioned to push back, Derby said, as they did both in South Carolina and in Alaska. In the latter, the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities warned that Governor Mike Dunleavy's offer to minimize the size of a cut to the University of Alaska system's budget if it reduced spending in certain areas could violate the accreditor's standards on "an independent and functional Board of Trustees or Regents."

On top of the potential damage to the university of the 41 percent state funding cut, "the additional and, perhaps, inappropriate strong-arm 'guidance' of the Alaska governor in place of the proper and shared decision-making processes central to the healthy functioning of an institution of higher learning poses yet another factor as NWCCU considers the long-term viability and accreditation status of the institutions within your stewardship," the agency's leader wrote.

The NACIQI panel wound up agreeing to form a subcommittee to "look into the issue of accrediting agency oversight of governance and political influence" at the institutions they accredit, according to staff notes from the meeting.

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