Last week’s dismissal – by a religious body -- of 14 trustees of Erskine College (to be followed by reconsidering the status of the remaining trustees) may violate two requirements of the institution’s accreditor, putting its recognition at risk.
Belle S. Wheelan, president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, said Friday that she became concerned about key rules about institutional independence last week after she read in Inside Higher Ed about the move by the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church to assert more control  over the college.
After a gathering of church leaders fired trustees Wednesday and announced a new board structure, there is a serious chance that the college could be in violation of at least two standards that are required for accreditation, Wheelan said.
The outgoing president of the college, Randall T. Ruble, said in an interview Friday that he too believes the church violated accrediting standards. While accreditors do not rush to yank recognition from institutions, they have the power to do so -- and thereby to end students’ eligibility for federal student aid.
Erskine, a liberal arts college in South Carolina, is the only higher education institution of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, known as the ARP. One division of the college is the church’s seminary. The ARP is a small, evangelical conservative denomination – so small that its members alone are not large enough to fill the colleges’ student body or faculty.
The church fired trustees and restructured the board following a review that found trustees had not placed enough emphasis on church teachings in all aspects of the college. Some in the church have been critical of the college for any deviations from a biblically inerrant view of the world, attacking professors who have encouraged open discussion of various topics and who are not seen as doctrinally pure. Many faculty members -- while reluctant to speak out for fear of their jobs -- say that they are worried that the purge of trustees may be followed soon by a purge of the faculty ranks.
Wheelan said that in cases where religious bodies appoint trustees, there is considerable leeway for those bodies to appoint qualified individuals who share a commitment to church views. But she said that SACS rules are also designed to ensure institutional independence by preventing any outside group from controlling a college. Two rules in particular may have been violated, she said.
One states that a governing board must be “free from undue influence from political, religious or other external bodies” and that the board “protects the institution from such influence.” The other states that governing boards must have rules whereby “members can be dismissed only for appropriate reasons and by a fair process.”
Normally, colleges are reviewed periodically by SACS for compliance with all rules. But when there is a major change in governance, colleges are required to report to SACS about the change, and President Ruble did so the day after the church replaced the board members. Based on that discussion, Wheelan said that SACS was about to send Erskine a letter asking how the college is complying with the accreditor’s rules, and that Erskine will probably have 30 days to respond. Based on those answers, SACS may consider investigating further and taking action.
Asked if he thinks the church violated SACS rules, Ruble said “I do,” and specifically pointed to the rule about fair procedures before board members can be dismissed. “It’s called due process and I don’t think there was due process,” he said. “I think this would be something that [SACS] should surely look at,” he said.
On the complaint from church leaders that the college is not sufficiently true to the faith's teachings, Ruble said that he could never claim complete success, but that many of the college’s programs and courses do in fact reflect the faith of the denomination. “If the expectation is that we should show faith everywhere, in every part of every class, we have come up short,” he said. But he said he wasn’t sure that was a “realistic” expectation.
Ruble is retiring as president this year and a search for his replacement is continuing. The process has been “kept highly secret from me and other people at Erskine,” Ruble said. The search committee had told him that it was down to considering finalists, with the goal of naming someone by April or May. But some of the search committee members were fired by the church last week, Ruble said, so he does not know if they will need to make changes in the process.
He also said he feared that the firing of the trustees could have an impact on candidates. “Wherever a board is removed like that, it raises questions for a potential candidate about what the direction of the college will be, and its stability and governance. That would be a logical question,” he said. He also stressed that he believes the college will survive the current controversy.
Paul Bell, executive director of the church's central office, said via e-mail that at the church meeting where the trustees were dismissed, "the issue of accreditation was discussed from various angles."