Who Runs UVa?

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.