Who runs UVa? The president? The faculty? The Board of Visitors? The General Assembly? Or the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges?

By Reed Fawell

Last month, the University of Virginia received the extraordinary news that the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges was investigating the integrity of its Board of Visitors for the manner in which it had removed President Teresa Sullivan last summer.  The Commission informed the university that it would refer its questions to two committees for scrutiny. Possible sanctions include issuing a warning, putting the university on probation, and repealing the school’s accreditation.  Thus the Commission reopened a controversy that most had considered resolved.

Where did this come from? I always reckoned that accrediting organizations worked to ensure that colleges and universities maintained threshold education standards and monitored struggling institutions to maintain those standards. But the mission of the Commission, it appears, has changed. The Decatur, Ga.-based organization, which accredits institutions through the 11 Southern states, claims powers beyond anything I had imagined.

The Commission asserts, for example, that it can compel the University of Virginia to document that it is continuously improving [its] programs and services while also living up to the Commission’s constantly evolving Policies, Principles, Standards and Requirements.

Core requirements are set out in the Commission’s 44-page, single-spaced document entitled “Principles of Accreditation: Foundation for Quality Enhancement.” These mandates, described generally as Principles of Integrity, Core Requirements, Comprehensive Standards, Federal Requirements, and Commission Policies,  are interpreted and enforced by means of some 260 documents, forms, and handbooks, which detail the Commission’s policies, guidelines, good practices, and position statements.  (See the Commission’s Index of Documents.)

For a taste of the Commission’s mandates applicable to UVa, see the 130-page single-spaced document entitled, “Handbook For Institutions Seeking Reaffirmation.” It requires, among other things, that UVa’s staff exhibit a spirit of collegiality when visited by the Commission, and that the staff maintain current knowledge and understanding of Commission policy as it permeates all aspects of the University — presumably because UVa’s Accreditation process (like that of all members) is an ongoing one.

This is quite extraordinary. Higher education is simultaneously facing an affordability crisis, driven in large part by administrative bloat, and disruptive change from the challenge of online learning. At a time that the University of Virginia needs to be leaner and nimbler, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges is encumbering it with more rules, more procedure and more administrative review on what appears to be a continual basis.  Equally disturbing, the Commission represents another powerful constituency, along with students, faculty, alumni, state government and other stakeholders, that must be placated and catered to, under possible threat of sanction.

The notion that an accrediting commission can lecture the University of Virginia, one of the most prestigious universities in the country, on how to govern itself is simply breathtaking. UVa is a public institution. While there are legitimate questions regarding the organization and conduct of the Board of Trustees, that debate should take place between the University, its stakeholders, Virginia’s political leaders and Virginia citizens – not an unelected, self-appointed overseer from Georgia, however voluntary that association purports to be.

The Commission’s reach over University policy rivals that of the State Council on Higher Education in Virginia (SCHEV).  The Commission requires the University to periodically reaffirm its accreditation and submit to re-reviews when it substantially modifies or expands the nature and scope of its activities, including the delivery of its services. Changes can trigger a host of mandates.  For example, UVa must document that it meets the Commission’s Principles of Integrity, Core Requirements, Comprehensive standards, Federal Requirements, and Commission policies — including its commitment to Commission Philosophy.

Integral to this process is a mandate that UVa document its ongoing progress in improving programs and services. That effort entails identifying key emerging issues and addressing those issues by means of a Quality Improvement Plan that involves all stakeholders, establishes achievable goals, allocates adequate resources and focuses on learning outcomes, all under a system, including governance, that facilitates the student’s “total development.” All this is detailed in the 130-page, single-spaced, “Handbook For Institutions Seeking Reaffirmation.”

Not only are the Standards for Accreditation burdensome, intrusive and subjective, an air of coercion permeates the Commission’s micro-management approach to enforcing the mandates. Indeed, it’s not a stretch to view the Commission as an imperialistic entity bent upon increasing its power, imposing its values and extending its reach, even into the smallest details of the University’s governance, administration, curriculum, and teaching practices. The aim  to establish a global presence, articulated in the Commission’s strategic plan, confirms the view of an entity whose ambitions apparently know no bounds.

The imperial mindset can be seen in a staff roster that consists of all chiefs and no indians. Headquartered in Decatur, Ga., the Commission has a staff of 39 people. These include a mail/print technician and receptionist.  And a senior secretary for the president who also enjoys an executive assistant to the president.  Plus 5 Administrative Assistants, 10 vice presidents, nine directors, six coordinators, two staff assistants, a senior accountant, a personnel specialist, and a senior vice president and chief of staff.  This group claims to process some 80 reaffirmations of accreditation annually.  The Commission’s Board of Trustees, who plays a part in this process, is larger than the University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors, including 77 trustees located in 11 southern states from Virginia to Texas.

This Board of Trustees will judge UVa’s guilt or innocence, and determine its sanctions, including dis-accreditation.  These judgments will be based on the Commission’s investigation followed by the recommendation of the Board’s own 13-member executive council, and various other committees, which are occupied by the presidents of such education giants as Huston-Tillotson University, in Texas,  Samford University in Alabama,  Cleveland State Community College in Tennessee.  These 13 institutions are typical, both in size and reputation, of the vast majority of board members and its roughly 800 dues-paying members.

The Commission apparently holds within all its functions (Executive Council, staff, various committees of compliance, reports, and appeals, Board of Trustees, and Delegate Assembly) the power to investigate a charge, determine the relevant facts and law, prosecute the charge and judge UVa’s guilt and punishment, and thereafter hear appeals. But it is accountable to no one in Virginia.

Reed Fawell, a consultant, real estate developer and retired attorney, has a B.A. from the University of Virginia, Class of ’67.

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  1. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    This analysis of the accreditation questions is regretfully flawed. My responses:

    (1) College accreditation is a necessary part of making sure that higher education groups are what they claim to be. Historically, non-profit schools are accredited regionally and for profit ones by national groups. The regions tend to include a group of geographically similar states. Harvard is accredited by a New England organization, so it is no big surprise that UVA is part of a southern organization. The fact that it is “Virginia” school is of no moment since accreditation is handled regionally.

    (2) The author may not like the idea of regional bodies holding power over the schools they oversee but they damned well better if they want to get federal grant money. Like it or not, UVa can’t just say it is Mr.Jefferson’s University and therefore is ABOVE outside review. That might suit some stuffy old Woos but it sure won’t help if UVa wants to continue growing with federal grant money.

    (3) The author states: “These judgments will be based on the Commission’s investigation followed by the recommendation of the Board’s own 13-member executive council, and various other committees, which are occupied by the presidents of such education giants as Huston-Tillotson University, in Texas, Samford University in Alabama, Cleveland State Community College in Tennessee. ” Ouch! Such arrogance! Sorry, but we’re not talking about a country club here and who let in those little unworthy people. This is the way accreditation works. Are you supposed to have one accrediting group for the “elites” (like UVa) and the rest for the 99 percent? Give me a break!
    (4) The author’s complaints that accrediting rules will burden the great and wonderful U.Va. when it needs to be nimble is just utter nonsense. He sounds like the plain vanilla conservative businessman whining about “regulation.” What is he proposing, that UVA go un-accredited because it can’t be bothered?
    (5) The fact is that U.Va.’s board showed great incompetence by forcing out Teresa Sullivan out of the blue, with no warning, no indication of is dissatisfaction with her and then no explanation to the rest of the university community. That would be a red flag to any accrediting body and it should be to the Virginia taxpayers who help foot the bill for the “University.” The school has no choice but to stay accredited.

    I am a UVa parent and Virginia taxpayer and have personally footed some of those bills. I sure hope I am paying for something and that my daughter’s course credit will have some clout somewhere.

  2. Accreditation is voluntary. Schools get it to give students, funding sources, and others dealing with the School assurance that the School is a legitimate academic institution. Further, it provides status. Not all schools are accredited, and some, like Patrick Henry College and a number of other religion-based schools, who can’t get accreditation from the Southern Association, go to a different, albeit less prestigious in some circles, accrediting agency.

  3. DJRippert Avatar

    Good work, Mr. Fawell!

    The accreditation body has gone far beyond its reasonable bounds with this idiotic intrusion into the governance of the University of Virginia.

    As usual, a regulatory body feeding on the Feds for power has vastly overstepped its bounds.

    The accreditation board should try to guarantee that the University of Virginia employs qualified professors and staff, meets minimum curriculum requirements and ensures that students getting degrees take the requisite classes and receive passing grads.

    Everything else is BS.

    Remember the old adage – give a bureaucrat an inch and he’ll take your wallet.

    This absurdity is yet another reason the cost of education is skyrocketing.

    Accreditation? Yes? An institutional proctology exam? No.

    1. “An institutional proctology exam” — good line!

  4. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Haarumph, Harrumph, Haruruph! You guys sound like Mel Brooks in “Blazing Saddles.”

    Why don’t you all take U.Va. private and fund it as you wish, or from your own vast pockets?. Screw federal research funding! We’ll show ’em!

    Maybe get rid of women, while you’re at it. Take it back to the 60s or before (when my cousin was there) , where it was a great sanctuary for rich little white boys whose destiny was to get great, good-paying, upper middle class jobs.

  5. Jeeze. Accreditation is a rating by a independent entity.

    What Reed is saying in essence is that a company like Consumer Reports cannot “rate” things and especially so if they rate a product “not acceptable”.

    I’m amused. there are dozens, if not hundreds of “ratings” and “accreditation” groups. They are, as a direct consequence of our first amendment, to express an opinion about things they rate – as long as it does not use lies or slander to do so.

    Accreditation groups are free to rank any school and most of the time, the school has to request to receive accreditation – by agreeing to meet the standards of the group that will accredit.

    Reed’s tome on this indicates to me – that he does not understand
    how this works.

    when you think about this – this is an entirely non-govt issue.

    there are no govt agencies involved and the accreditation is entirely voluntary.

    Reed, my man, you ought to re-think this a bit.

  6. Larry, You’re missing the main point of Reed’s post. There’s nothing wrong with having an accreditation organization. But the Commission has done waaaay beyond ensuring that colleges and universities meet minimal standards of effectiveness. It is telling higher ed institutions how to run their institutions. It creates more rules and red tape and more bureaucracy and another stakeholder that must be placated. The over-reach is a recipe for failure.

  7. but Jim – the accreditation standards are the business of the organization that accredits and it’s up to the University if they want to meet those standards or not.

    The University is free to walk away from ANY accreditation entity it does not wish to meet the standards of.

    Ya’ll are treating this as if it is “govt” (red tape)… and it’s not. It’s purely a private deal – not that different than Consumer Reports setting it’s standards for a product and rating them according to those standards. No govt is involved at all.

    It must be in ya’ll “genes” …. when ya’ll are saying a private entity is acting like the govt.

    Can’t you see this?

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      Consumer Reports stays in business because people read what it writes. Which is one reason that Consumer Reports doesn’t delve into how products are made – only whether the products are good products.

      College accreditation determines whether you hold a college degree or not. Read most job descriptions. They require a degree from an accredited college or university. This is true for government jobs as well as private jobs.

      Accreditation is more like an audit of financial statements. It’s not just “nice to have”. It’s required.

      So, I have a problem with an accreditation agency threatening UVA’s accreditation over board vs president politics. Is it really reasonable for the accreditation agency to threaten to yank UVA’s status over a board level dispute that last 18 days? Should degrees issues by UVA suddenly become null and void because an accreditation agency doesn’t like the governance process at the top of the university?

      These bozos have vastly overstepped their bounds.

      If Consumer Reports rated a lamp badly because they disagreed with the manufacturer’s dividend policy you’d throw the Consumer Report in the trash. You don’t buy Consumer Reports to get financial analysis of manufacturers. And you don’t get accreditation as a critique of university governance processes.

  8. Ditto for what Don just said.

    Furthermore, Larry, no one is treating this as “government” red tape. That’s a red herring. You are correct in saying that UVa’s association with the Commission is voluntary. The university is free to choose another accrediting organization. Here’s the thing: The Commission’s scope and reach extends a lot further now than when UVa signed on. The organization is abrogating more and more power to itself. At some point, UVa has got to say, “Whoah, that’s not we signed up for.”

    UVa is not likely to say that right now. There are strong constituencies still clamoring for revenge against the Board of Visitors. They see the Commission as an ally in restructuring the board more to their liking.

    Also, it’s like the frog in the pot of boiling water. The process by which the Commission abrogates power is so slow that nobody inside the university really notices. And nobody outside the university pays the slightest attention. It’s only when someone comes in from the outside and looks at the situation, like Reed did, that the extent of the Commission’s power trip becomes obvious.

  9. One flaw in this analysis is that colleges and universities impose these standards upon themselves. Accreditation is a self-regulatory regime. The SACS board is composed of representatives of the institutions, not SACS staff. With the exception of Federal Requirements, which are usually mandates from the federal government, institutions have the power to add, amend, or eliminate any of the standards.

  10. Well DJ is wrong about CR. CR routinely ways in on design issues and whether products meet industry and product standards.

    but ya’ll are still evading the central issue and that is accreditation
    entities are not govt and voluntary and ya’ll are railing against their right to “rate”, no different than you’d rail again CR rating a product not acceptable for what they consider to be a serious flaw in design or manufacturing.

    you talk about how a private entity “allocates power” or boils a frog as if there is a law or rule that requires a private entity to do something a certain way.

    I think you boys are screwed up in terms of how you view govt – when you can’t even distinguish between what govt is and does and private entities.

    you’re attributes the same “bad conduct” that you accuse the govt
    of – to a private entity.

    do you really believe someone should be telling the accreditation entities how to do business?

    come on guys.. ya’ll are sawing on the same branch you’re sitting on.

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      Product design issues, LarryG – not governance processes at the company that makes the product. There is a huge difference.

      UVa is owned by us, the citizens and taxpayers of Virginia. So, when an accreditation agency over steps its bounds, it over steps its bounds on an asset we all own.

      I do not accept the idea that the accreditation agency has the right to usurp the governance processes put in place by those who own UVa – us.

      Maybe UVa needs a different accreditation group.

  11. One important item to add is that the federal government does tell accrediting agencies how to do business. The agencies are “accredited” themselves by the federal government. SACS was “cited” on a few issues in June 2012.


  12. Again, UVA is not required to get accreditation, and it has choices if it doesn’t like the Southern Association comments/standards. It can just say hell no. It can give up its accreditation. As a significant and prestigious member of the Association, it can influence the organization to change its rules. I suspect though that there are many good reasons not to just drop it – such as funding, public perception, and agreement with the goals of the Association, such as protection of academic freedom and academic standards. I doubt that the Association is just a money pit for failed academics and bureaucrats, but you’d never get that from this article. I know there is another side to this that wasn’t covered in Reed Fawell’s article, and I would have liked to get a more balanced view, and in that regard I say thanks to the other posters here.

  13. Richard is 100% correct IMHO.

    and I’m waiting for Jim B to admit it.

  14. re: requirements of the Federal Govt with regard to accreditation entities.

    this is pretty esoteric stuff… but words like “recognition” and “advisory” pepper the document and no laws or rules seem to REQUIRE any accreditation entity to do business a certain way or be found in violation of the law. This is no US code cited.

    It appears to be accreditation that also is “voluntary”.

    The accreditation entity can choose to NOT be recognized by the Advisory Panel.

    The referenced link actually talks about requirements for schools in the accreditation process in order to meet Govt requirements.

    here’s an excerpt:

    ” Issues or Problems: The agency must demonstrate that it consistently applies its Federal Requirement 4.1 so that an assessment regarding compliance with the standard is clearly assessed in accord with its written criterion (§602.16(a)(1)(i)).

    The agency must provide evidence that it consistently and effectively applies its curricula standard, specifically with regard to its application of Core Requirement 2.7.3 (§602.16(a)(1)(ii)).

    The agency must provide evidence of the application of its new guidance under FR 4.1 resulting in a detailed written report that assesses an institution’s performance with respect to student achievement (§602.17(f)).

    The agency must provide evidence that its substantive changes are approved by its decision-making body (§602.22(a)(2)(ix-x)).”

    There is no reference US Code which would imply that actual law applies to the Accreditation agencies.

    this looks more like the US Dept of ED “recognition” which implies that the accreditation entity can choose to not be recognized by US ED.

    Although I will admit – I’m not quite understanding it is it’s entirety. It sounds like a lot of inside baseball to me.

    If someone knows more and can more fully explain it – I’d be appreciative.

  15. larryg:

    FYI – 34 CFR 602 is the section of the code that relates to federal recognition of accrediting agencies.


    You are correct that accrediting agencies can choose not to be recognized by NACIQI (the federal advisory panel), just as institutions can choose not to be accredited by accreditors. If SACS opted out of such recognition, all SACS-accredited institutions would immediately lose access to Title IV funding, federal research funding, etc. But, such recognition is indeed voluntary.

  16. DJRippert Avatar

    You can become a US Marine by successfully completing Officer’s Candidate School. Here is one requirement for entry into that school (from the US Marines web site):

    “While all officers must have a degree from an accredited four-year university before receiving their commission, …”

    Richard says UVa can just give up its accreditation. While this may be technically true it is practically false.

    A degree from a university that is not accredited would deny the degree holder many, many opportunities.

    The point of accreditation is to allow people to distinguish a legitimate college degree from a degree issued by the “close cover before striking” school of phony baloney.

    Any accreditation agency that would threaten to deny accreditation to a university because of the university’s internal governance processes should be dropped as the accreditation body.

    This is a case of pure political bulls*** by the accreditation agency. As a taxpayer in Virginia, I don’t appreciate the accreditation agency’s attempt to play political games with UVa.

  17. reed fawell Avatar
    reed fawell

    “If someone knows more and can more fully explain it – I’d be appreciative.”

    Larry, I’ll report back on these and other issues raised.

  18. re: ” 34 CFR 602″ – thanks for the link

    but this does not pertain to accrediting agencies but only the Dept of ED authority for operating the voluntary recognition program.

    this is not regulation of the accrediting entities.


    the basic point remains – that the accrediting entities set their own standards and processes and that participation in their accreditations is voluntary.

    I think the complaints here are really about how powerful a non-govt entity can be in what it does – without being a govt or have the power of laws.

    they basically set standards and rate schools on how many meet those standards.

    no one forces anyone to participate -least of all – the govt.

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