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Ron DeSantis, wearing a suit and tie, pointing and talking into a microphone

Years before Trump announced his attack on college accreditors, Florida governor Ron DeSantis was crusading against one in particular: the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.

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College accreditors became the latest target of conservatives’ efforts to upend higher education when former president—and 2024 presidential candidate—Donald Trump last week announced his plan to “fire” the agencies. His charge: the accreditors have failed to protect students from the “Marxist maniacs and lunatics” who he believes have taken over higher ed.

Long accustomed to maintaining a low profile outside the industry, many of the nation’s accrediting agencies may find it jarring to be thrust suddenly into the political spotlight alongside DEI initiatives and critical race theory. But for the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, it’s nothing new; for more than two years, the agency has been fending off allegations of ideological influence and “wokeness” from lawmakers—some of whom have introduced legislation to limit its influence in their states.

Belle Wheelan, longtime president of SACS, said the attacks have intensified as the culture wars have engulfed the national conversation around higher ed and ambitious actors like Florida governor Ron DeSantis look to turn colleges into political cudgels.

“There’s always been some legislative interference in higher ed. But rarely was that interference concerning academic freedom,” she said. “Things are different now, and they are much more invasive.”

There are dozens of accreditors in the country, but SACS is one of the seven major agencies that, until recently, oversaw the institutions in their geographic regions. In 2019, the Trump administration loosened restrictions to allow accreditors to monitor institutions anywhere in the country, effectively making them all “national” agencies.

But the seven regionals, as they’re known, still operate largely in their historic areas. That’s one reason SACS has fallen under attack: the 11 states in its region include some of the most deeply conservative in the country, including Texas, Tennessee and Florida.

Some observers have said that Trump’s attacks on accreditors last week largely echo those of DeSantis, his likely 2024 Republican rival, with whom SACS has an especially contentious relationship. The accreditor has issued warnings about certain unprecedented actions the governor has taken, including replacing most of the board at New College of Florida; in turn, DeSantis is crusading against what he calls the accreditation “cartel.”

That fight recently culminated in a bill requiring all public institutions in the state to change accreditors every five years; because SACS is still the primary accreditor there, most of Florida’s colleges and universities will be forced to find a new accreditor if the bill passes.

Now lawmakers in Texas and North Carolina are following suit, launching similar legislation to challenge the power of the major accreditors.

Barbara Brittingham, the former president of the New England Commission of Higher Education, said the lawmakers involved don’t seem to fully comprehend the consequences of mandating accreditation switching, and she doubts that institutions would do so on their own.

“A lot of people talking about accreditation right now simply don’t understand it … I think many of them are just caught up in the political theater,” she said. “If an institution wants to switch accreditors, then fine … but if they’re forced to switch, that’s not just kind of a brutal ultimatum—it’s inefficient and expensive for the institution.”

Patient Zero

Wheelan said she “has no idea” what prompted Florida lawmakers to lead the charge in villainizing SACS.

But Edward Conroy, a senior education adviser for the policy think tank New America, said he has a hunch that it started in 2021, when the University of Florida barred three of its professors from testifying against the state in a lawsuit opposing restrictions on voting rights. In response, SACS launched an investigation of the university to determine if that decision was the result of undue political influence over a public institution.

According to multiple sources who spoke with Inside Higher Ed, even before that SACS had a reputation for rigidity that frustrated many in the for-profit and burgeoning online program management communities. It has been called heavy-handed in decisions involving for-profit and online programs as well as in rescinding accreditation for financially struggling minority-serving institutions; at the same time, it’s been called overly lenient in some of its dealings with underperforming institutions.

But these past few years, all sources agreed, were the first time the bureaucratic back-room bickering spilled over into fiery public debate.

“Accreditors have in the past largely only elicited interest from wonky policy analysts like me,” Conroy said. “There have been moments, usually in state politics, when politicians want to use accreditors as useful foils to try and make a point. But in the past two or three years, it feels like, the tenor has changed significantly, to where they’re treated as political punching bags.”

Some say SACS has brought this scrutiny on itself. Adam Kissel, a visiting fellow at the right-leaning think tank the Heritage Foundation and former adviser to Trump education secretary Betsy DeVos, said the accreditor has demonstrated a political bent in choosing which institutional actions it chooses to investigate. He pointed to a pattern of scrutinizing schools in response to media headlines—including at the University of North Carolina in January over the board’s unilateral creation of a controversial new school—as evidence of SACS’s ideological bias.

“Belle has said that when SACS sees something in the news that concerns them, they will act on it and reach out or investigate,” he said. “Considering most media coverage has a left-wing bias, and she operates largely in red states, it’s no surprise that this has taken on a political tone.”

Beyond that, Kissel said the accreditor has repeatedly interfered in governance decisions made by state legislators who should be within their right to replace or promote leaders and board members at public institutions.

“Even though there’s certainly a political flavor to how SACS has been targeting institutions, I wouldn’t say the response to SACS from lawmakers has been political; they’ve been protecting their own right to governance,” he said. “My view is that Texas looks at that, North Carolina looks at that, and they’re thinking, we need to get our institutions out from under SACS.”

Wheelan insisted that investigating issues raised by the news media was not a new practice, but part of SACS’s Unsolicited Information Policy, which she said had been in place since “at least 1999.”

“All we’ve done is follow our policy,” Wheelan said. “Why the response has suddenly taken on a ‘How dare you question what we’re doing?’ attitude, I have no clue.”

Losing Leverage

When the Trump administration loosened accrediting restrictions in 2019, some predicted an exodus of institutions from the seven major accreditors, including SACS. But Wheelan said that never happened.

“The only institutions we lost have been mergers or because we dropped them,” she said.

That could change if the Florida bill passes and other states decide to follow. Mike Goldstein, managing director of the investment firm Tyton Partners, which focuses on higher education and the knowledge sector, said that since Trump eased the regulations, accreditors like SACS have had less leverage than before—for better or worse.

“This is not [Wheelan’s] first rodeo in Florida,” Goldstein said. He was referring to a 2013 battle between SACS and then governor Rick Scott, in which the accreditor launched an investigation after the governor publicly suggested replacing the president of Florida A&M, an HBCU. “But back then, she had more leverage. Now, after Trump, there are more options [for universities].”

“Belle knew the first time around that she wouldn’t lose institutions,” he added. “This time, she can’t know for sure.”

But passing an accreditation bill like Florida’s could present challenges; the Department of Education has warned that such mandates could result in a loss of eligibility for federal financial aid. And some policy makers and higher ed leaders predict a retightening of accreditation restrictions as soon as this year, which would make finding a new accreditor more difficult for institutions in states that require it.

“This year, we’re going to have a whole regulatory process around accreditation,” Conroy said. “Some of the regulations that were loosened under the Trump administration, I think, need to be strengthened again to help accreditors resist any pressure to weaken their own standards because of political interference.”

Regardless of whether that happens, Conroy said the spotlight currently focused on accreditors can have a corrosive effect on regulatory processes. He worries that SACS’s public trials could be a cautionary tale for other major accreditors.

“These political attacks certainly present some challenging headwinds for accreditors,” he said. “SACS may have the most difficult region for this problem, but other accreditors should also call out political interference and stick to their principles … More and more, they also need to make sure they have all their ducks in a row when they do so and are able to back it up.”

Wheelan said she’ll remain committed to holding SACS-accredited institutions accountable in all the states in her region—without punishing them for lawmakers’ attacks or playing softball to win back approval.

“Florida institutions are still my institutions,” she said. “Until they’re no longer my institutions, we will continue to treat them just like we do all of our other members.”

Belle of the Ball

Wheelan, who is Black, has borne the brunt of Republican lawmakers’ frustrations with SACS. Some lawmakers and right-wing higher ed consultants say she has a history of blatantly partisan meddling; her supporters say she’s a convenient scapegoat for a reformist political movement that seeks to create villains to justify itself.

“[SACS is] the only accrediting organization without a DEI requirement,” Wheelan said. “So I’m not quite sure how I got to be the poster child for wokeness except the fact that I am a woman and I am a minority.”

But even some of Wheelan’s critics say that Republicans are unfairly maligning her character for political points.

Goldstein, of Tyton Partners, has butted heads with Wheelan over the years. But his main issue with SACS, he said, is its staunch commitment to a staid set of standards that he views as suffocating for new, innovative higher ed ventures; it’s Wheelan’s strong, top-down leadership style—not any kind of political influence—that has prevented challenges to these standards.

“This is all grossly unfair for Belle. She hasn’t changed at all; it’s the ground beneath her feet that’s shifted,” he said. “The naked politics of this is what’s new.”

Brittingham, formerly of NECHE, has known Wheelan for the better part of two decades and says the aspersions being cast at her are all part of a political football game that could get ugly.

“I really feel for Belle,” she said. “The people that are pushing her on this want things in the political limelight, and she’s trying to stay out of that.”

Wheelan said the attacks may be frustrating, but she remains steadfast. What helps console her, she said, is that most of her critics “don’t understand how accreditation works” and have no concept of the complicated decision-making processes that go into a censure or investigation.

“I get no vote in any of this, but I get the blame for all of it,” she said. “But I accepted that 18 years ago. I knew what I was getting into.”

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