The Agenda behind the Attack on UVa’s Accreditation

“New Pew Research Center data show that a large majority of Americans think U.S. colleges and universities offer only fair or poor value for the financial cost – but college presidents strikingly disagree, with a majority of them thinking college offers at least a good value … I think a lot of this attitudinal divide relates to the non-market environment in which colleges operate. How do you become a successful college president? You raise lots of money, which you then use to bribe the various constituents in the university community to keep them happy.” — Richard Vedder

by Reed Fawell III

The Southern Association of Colleges and Universities (SACU) is threatening to revoke the University of Virginia’s accreditation on the grounds that the Board of Visitors improperly removed President Teresa Sullivan last year. Why does this obscure organization propose to dictate governance policy to one of the oldest and most respected universities in the country?

There are many reasons.  But the root cause is profoundly disturbing: College presidents, who control SACU, are using the accreditation agency as their Trojan horse to strip Virginia state officials and the University’s Board of Visitors of their power to run their flagship state university and to grab that power for themselves.

It’s a brazen coup.  College administrators want unlimited control of our state colleges.  To seize it, they want to overturn the power of state officials and boards, which from time immemorial have hired, supervised, and removed them. Their chosen vehicle is the SACU, which can impose the ultimate sanction. By denying accreditation, required for students to qualify for federal loans, the association can eviscerate any university’s finances.

Most frightening of all, this coup is being engineered by the small cadre of presidents who run not only SACU but many of the nation’s most dysfunctional schools.  Schools with abysmal test scores, schools where most students do not graduate.  Schools that promote rampant grade inflation to hide their failure to provide students with a decent education.  Schools that encourage non-essential courses that prop up income but delay students’ graduation. Schools that saddle students with debt to pay for the education they often failed to receive… but need to pay off that debt.

In short, these schools set kids up for failure and mortgage their future — and the nation’s future as well. It’s a corrupt system. It’s destroying our kids.

And the college presidents who built this system now want to control our institutions of higher learning lock stock and barrel.  Thus, they can avoid accountability and maintain the dismal status quo, largely at taxpayer expense, after depleting the savings of students and parents alike.

Most brazen of all, these college presidents are using the banner of accreditation, integrity and quality to pull off the heist at the university that Thomas Jefferson built!

Why target the University of Virginia?  Because the Board of Visitors launched a determined push to fix today’s broken system by finding new ways to bring affordable high quality education to more students than ever.  This poses an existential threat to those institutions now failing their students, and the nation as well.

But this assault on the University is not the presidents’ only line of attack.  The college presidents are using SACU’s mindlessly oppressive regulation to control other people’s colleges and universities as well.  Try to read SACU’s various regulatory documents.  They’re frightening in scope, detail, and intrusive power.  Note how these documents try to regulate, control and limit the power of college boards — and how few few restrictions they impose on the power and authority of college presidents.  Clearly, the objective is to to enlarge the power of of the presidents at the expense of both the board and the faculty.  Why?  It’s obvious why.  The college presidents wrote these documents, and the SACU enforces them.

The SACU also wields immense investigatory power over the faculty.  Its rules place enormous burden on the faculty to prove compliance with SACU’s dictates, even to the point of defining the proper social attitudes that will be extended to the investigators.  See the 140 page single space small font “Documenting Compliance, Handbook for Institutions Seeking Reaffirmation” pages 25-30 for insight into the coercive regime imposed on faculty.  Scholars are treated as imbeciles under this text.  And Boards of Trustees fare hardly any better.

Start your reading with SACU’s 140-page, single-spaced, small-font Resource Manual for the Principals of AccreditationIt interprets SACU’s 43-page Principles of Accreditation.

Both these documents purport to lay down “Foundations of Quality.” What they accomplish is to seize control of colleges and universities from boards of trustees, state officials and faculty and vest that control in college and university presidents.

SACU regulations inhibit innovation in areas such as distance learning without an elaborately tedious approval process that provide state college presidents  a multitude of ways to thwart change.  You can be assured they will do so if such innovation threatens their schools by offering their students a better educational alternative, as it almost surely will.

29 Responses to The Agenda behind the Attack on UVa’s Accreditation

  1. ” is threatening to revoke?” This seriously overstates the case.

  2. Colleges and universities are failing America. The ever escalating tuition costs are simply and smugly ignored by college administrations. When some elected official or appointed board takes action – the administrators hide behind some regulatory body with accountability to no one.

    • “Colleges and universities are failing America.”

      You’re right Don. And the UVA is taking bold and positive action to find ways to deliver to students the education they deserve at a price and convenience they can afford.

      As a result UVA is being attacked by those whose schools are failing our students. Why? Because their corrupt system is threatened by UVA’s quest for ways to deliver good education that their students can afford.

      Those who care about good education for all need to strongly support UVA’s efforts and leadership to solve this huge and growing national problem. And we need to vigorously and actively oppose those who place road blocks in the way of solutions, for the own selfish interests.

  3. so the folks who are “threatening” are themselves Presidents of failed Universities?

    got names?

    • Go the the executive committee of SACU. Take down the names of their members and their schools. Then check out their graduations rates, costs, and student debts of those schools as listed on the Chronicle of Higher Education Website. And then based on that information decide for yourself who they might be.

      And understand that making the information public was apparently quite a battle. Much credit in due to the Chronicle for insisting these numbers be exposed to the light of day. In my research I have found great difficulty finding this information on many college websites. Often its hidden amid a blizzard of meaningless numbers so as to obscure it from public view.

  4. thanks for the link:

    these folks look pretty reputable:

    Virginia Delegation

    Rosalind Reichard, President, Emory & Henry College, Emory (Executive Council Member and Chair of State Delegation)

    Michael A. Gillette, President, Bioethical Services of Virginia, Lynchburg (Public Representative)

    Nancy Oliver Gray, President, Hollins University, Roanoke

    Linda K. Thomas-Glover, President, Eastern Shore Community College, Melfa

    Daniel A. Wubah, Vice President and Dean for Undergraduate Education, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg

    are these the folks that voted to threaten sanctions against UVA?

  5. Generally speaking, it appears that SACU acts under the direction of its 77 member board of directors. This board represents the approximately 800 members of the association. When the Board is out of session, SACU actions are directed by a 13 member Executive Council. Some 95% of the associations board members and/or council members appear to be Presidents of member institutions. Thus SACU’s actions would appear to be instigated and driven by its Board. Daily oversight would seem to be conducted by its Executive Committee. Broad very general direction appears vested in its members. See http://www.sacscoc.org

    The last time I looked the four year graduation rates of institutions of higher learning within the states under the jurisdiction of SACU were:
    Florida – 35.6%
    Georgia – 24.3%
    Kentucky – 20%
    Louisiana – 15.8%;
    Mississippi – 22.4%
    North Carolina – 36.5%
    Tennessee – 31.9%
    Virginia – 45%
    West Virginia – 22.2%

    These numbers would seem to fairly represent those on SACU Board of Trustees and Executive Council, with exceptions of course. I believe it is true that members may not vote on sanction issues involving other institutions in their state.

    Other relevant posts are found on this website if searched under UVa.

    • Why isn’t the SACU threatening the accreditation of the institutions in Louisiana that can only manage a 15.8% four year graduation rate?

      Oh, right … the college administrations don’t really care if the students graduate in four years or if they graduate at all. They just need economic cannon fodder to protect their vested economic interests. And a student paying tuition funds the broken system – whether that students graduates in four years, five years, six years or ever.

      • Yes, exactly, Don. A failed student does not mean a failed school.

        Quite the reverse, the current system has been built so that a school can do quite well off failed students. One need only keep them in the system long enough thinking they are getting an education, or are eventually going to get one.

        In some case it appears some institutions simple collect warm bodies, arrange various federal, state, and private grants and loans for them (the latter the students personal debt), then keep them going as long as the school can, giving them inflated grades, until they drop out or sit though enough courses to get a worthless degree. There are even programs where the students go through (but never emerge from) remedial programs to prep them for college courses they’ll never take. No one.

        In these sorts of “schools, the majority of students typically never graduate. Far to often those who do graduate receive worthless degrees. Its appalling. Check out CompleteCollege.com Its funded by the Gates Foundation. The statistics are devastating.

        And many these operators are members of the Southern Association of Colleges and Universities that’s now threatening UVA. Why? The answers obvious.

    • who were the folks that took the vote to consider sanctions?

  6. well Jeeze. Most all Colleges and Universities nationwide basically “sell” their services to any kid who is willing to get a loan.

    This seems to be the case for every type of school from the highly-respected to the fly-by-nights.

    I’m not sure I see a direct connection here to the accreditation issue.

    I’d be fairly easily convinced that something untoward is going on with the accreditation issue but I need more specifics and less conflating with other things that probably have little or not import.

    • Funny – when the banks made loans to people who had little chance of repaying the loans you called it a “moral hazard” and demanded more regulation. When colleges and universities do the same thing you have no comment.

      Follow the bouncing ball – Teresa Sullivan was almost fired for refusing to move UVA forward into the modern world of online education. While the matter was ineptly handled by the board the question remains – how to bring the costs of a college education into line with the benefits.

      The administrations of US colleges and universities have created a “moral hazard” with the increasing costs of a college education, the resulting size of the loans and the dubious value of degrees never completed and degrees granted with limited economic value. The moral hazard comes when college administrations are wholly dedicated to the preservation of employment opportunities for faculty and staff and insulated from the consequences of loan defaults from the students.

      Boards exist to provide oversight from the university owners (in the case of UVA – the citizens of Virginia) and the administrations. Containing the cost of a college education is in the interests of the citizens. However, through a moral hazard it is not a critical issue for college administrators.

      The check against this moral hazard is an unavoidable friction between the boards of colleges and universities and the administrations and faculties of those same institutions.

      The system of checks and balances between boards and administrations is compromised when organizations established to guarantee academic competency overstep their boundaries and attempt to use their legitimate power for the illegitimate goal of squelching the power of the board.

      Eventually the student loan situation will reach a “crisis”. Fingers will be pointed. Loans will be excused and taxpayers will end up footing the bill.

      You know – just like the mortgage crisis.

      • Well said Don.

        Sub-prime mortgage / Sub-prime education = homeowner, student + taxpayer get the shaft -

      • I do not think what happened at UVA had anything what-so-ever to do with the fetid mess called student loans.

        It’s a nationwide problem – and I agree it’s a moral hazard but a majority in Congress believe that getting people to go to college is worth the investment even if some don’t make it and the govt takes the hit.

        What they apparently do not see if what all this loose money is doing to the institution of higher learning were basically virtually everyone of them from UVA to Christopher Newport to GMU are prostituting themselves to get this money.

        But you wanna know something almost as bad? Subsidized flood insurance …especially for those who own vacation homes at the beach.

        now THAT’s a scandal…..!!!

  7. Don – the web site address to see was misstated above. Proper address is: completecollege.org

  8. So how did UVa get into this accreditation outfit in the first place? Aren’t there others out there? Why doesn’t UVa just switch to one that may be more appropriate? It seems to work with football conferences.

  9. Darrell – good question – tomorrow morning I’ll respond based on what I know.

  10. Mark my words, UVA and Helen Dragas are going to go down as arbiters of change. Not to pick on SACS, but the accreditation agents are generally foxes guarding henhouses–SACS tipped its hand when it found no violations BOV, but issued a toothless sanction, nonetheless, as if to assert its relevance. Meddling middlemen standing between institutions and federal funds. There are some institutions in serious financial trouble, and there is no early identification by SACS.

    Things are going to start changing fast. Bill Gates suggests it’s time to shift from measuring schools by their input metrics to their output metrics. ” In the U.S., we should be measuring the value being added by colleges. Currently, college rankings are focused on inputs—the scores and quality of students entering college—and on judgments and prejudices about a school’s “reputation.” Students would be better served by measures of which colleges were best preparing their graduates for the job market. They then could know where they would get the most for their tuition money.” No kidding!

    I hear the sound of another bubble bursting–I’m hoping that UVA will be more prepared to adjust than the schools who continue incrementalism.

    • “Mark my words, UVA and Helen Dragas are going to go down as arbiters of change. ”

      I could not agree more, Lift.

      I criticized Sullivan’s removal. And supported her reinstatement. Given the fallout, I also concluded it best for Ms. Dragas to step down. I did the latter with regret. Her vision to see and her courage to confront UVA challenges are precious qualities, desperately needed now by our colleges, and rare. Particularly on Boards. There it is easy to exploit the status and dodge hard decisions, so as to avoid the labor and pain of acting responsibly. Ms. Dragas refused to do so.

      Now its obvious the Governor did right by Ms Dragas renomination and by buttressing her and the able President Sullivan with new board members of exceptional ability and character. Its also obvious the UVa. now enjoys of powerful team to buttress its powerful board and able President.

      The energy of this new UVA is palpable. The place is humming and alive. It’s a wonder to watch. UVa is on a roll. Mr. Jefferson’s smiling I’m sure.

      • I don’t disagree with all of this but I think Dragas is damaged goods and will never be trusted to broker change.

        Perhaps she has a lot of pride and just could not walk away as if she failed and was blamed but I think it’s going to be a rough row to hoe to rehabilitate herself.

        It’s not WHAT she did. It’s HOW she did it – behind people’s backs, not upfront with folks, and sneaking around gathering up confederates to coordinate an ouster.

        How do you trust version 2.0?

        • I understand that you’re saying that many people believe that it was the manner that was objectionable, and they’re welcome to that view. I’ve followed closely what the BOV Manual says vice the procedure used, and I would say that the philosophical difference cited at the outset of these events began with the procedure used by the BOV. Getting things done in compliance with rules is what this outcome-oriented BOV did. The call for concensus-building comes from groups that operate in a realm with a different standard. I’m still struggling to find an example of transparent termination discussions, anywhere, ever. The Rector knew who among the BOV would oppose seeking the President’s removal, and avoided discussion with the 2 of them. When she had all other members support, she knew that she didn’t need the support of the remaining 2; she knew that the measure could stand a full-board vote (that they sought resignation rather than termination is another discussion). Further, she knew that those 2 might act to derail the removal. She waited until the last moment to apprise them. This is called getting things done–within the rules. If Boards want inspirational leaders, they ought to turn to clergy, and they’ll need to rewrite their mission, at least @ UVA.

          • re: ” This is called getting things done–within the rules.”

            maybe.. but it offends my sense of fairness and forthrightness and if I were one of those on the other end of her actions, I’d not trust her again for quite some time.

            You can do this kind of a thing in a corporate or business especially if you wield power over others jobs or positions but in an environment like a University and a BOV this kind of behavior does not build trust or foster collaborative working relationships.

            she’s a predator on the loose and everyone knows now so you keep your back to the wall and your eyes open.

          • reed fawell III

            Lift – thank you for this analysis – it is the most clarifying and enlightened that I have read. You’ve twisted back into proper shape what should have been the starting point of dialogue on this subject.

  11. “but the accreditation agents are generally foxes guarding henhouses.”

    I agree, Lift. Some of the leaders of the Southern Commission include:

    The president of Delta State University, which graduated only 19.9% of its four-year students within four years. Fewer than half (46.6%) matriculate within six years. Its president is chairman of the Commission.

    The president of Huston-Tillotson University, which graduated some 11.5% four-year students in 4 years, while another 12.7% earned a degree after six years.

    Along with the chairman and vice chairman, the presidents of 11 other colleges sit on the Commission’s powerful Executive Council. A sampling of their four-year graduation rates ranges from 13.1% to 22%.
    (See Inquisitor, Investigate Thyself posting on this website)

    These are some of the folks sending “investigators” to UVA next fall.

  12. As pointed out else where on this website, former Senator/college pres. Hank Brown in a recent WSJ article stated that:

    “Fully 43% of all grades at four-year universities today are As.”

    Imagine how many ways that damages students? Here are only two:

    1. How can the 43% of a class getting “all As” learn anything? Education requires that one see one’s mistakes. Then it demands that one learn thought the pain of trial and error how to overcome those mistakes. Only then does the student learn the discipline and satisfaction of being able to confront and master error. If this be true, then a school that gives its students all “As” guts that students learning process for all but a very few.

    2. It also commits a fraud on its students. They think they are getting an education. They think they are being prepared for work in the real world. They think they are highly accomplished and even brilliant. Imagine the shock after graduation. The damage it does. How many can recover? Their education’s been stolen from them. It’s left them uneducated and highly vulnerable. Then pile on debt incurred for the worthless education. That debt drags them down – postponing their life. These are horrible results.

    3. How about the Real A Student? The one who’s earned “All As”. She’s robbed too. Her earned A is greatly revalued in the marketplace.

    Consider also how the grade inflation corrupts the Professor. If he gives 43% of his students All A no matter what, he really does not have to grade much at all. Nor does he have to do the hard but rewarding labor of teaching his students. Unless he’s close to a saint, its very easy for him to become an accessory to the fraud.

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