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Accrediting board to review UVa's status

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Posted: Monday, October 22, 2012 10:35 pm | Updated: 4:23 pm, Tue Jan 22, 2013.

The University of Virginia’s accreditation status will be reviewed in the wake of this summer’s leadership crisis.

The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, SACS, has been looking into the summer’s events and whether the university met standards for integrity, governing boards and the faculty’s role in governance. In its latest letter to UVa, SACS’ Commission on Colleges writes that its questions about UVa will be referred to two of the commission’s committees, which could remove the school’s accreditation in December.

At its December meeting, the commission’s board could accept UVa’s response, ask for a follow-up report, place UVa on warning for six months or a year, place UVa on probation for six months or a year, or drop the institution from membership, wrote commission president Belle S. Wheelan in an email.

UVa told the association earlier this year that Rector Helen E. Dragas’ statements over the summer explained why it had removed President Teresa A. Sullivan, who was later reinstated amid heavy public pressure.

“There is no more explanation to give,” UVa’s letter read.

But after the association’s latest effort, the Board of Visitors is considering how to respond, according to a statement from UVa.

“The board believes the university has fully complied with the principles of accreditation, state law and its own policies, and hopes that [the association’s] concerns will be satisfactorily addressed,” read the statement.

While the university’s earlier response had cleared up commission staffers’ concerns about the UVa faculty’s role in curricular matters, the association’s latest letter made clear that it still has questions about other items.

“Given that there is a lack of an identified procedure related to the removal of the institution’s President, the possibility of integrity issues with governing board authority and actions continues to exist,” the letter reads.

And because the Faculty Senate advises the Rector and Board of Visitors “concerning educational and related matters affecting the welfare of the University,” it seems the Faculty Senate should have been notified of the board’s intent to oust Sullivan, according to the letter, which is signed by vice president Mark V. Smith of the association’s Commission on Colleges.

If UVa wants to add more information, it should be sent no later than Nov. 12, the letter states.

The issue will go to the committees at the commission’s December meeting.

“You will be informed of the decision of the ... Board of Trustees within two weeks of its meeting,” the letter informed UVa.

Accreditation is important in part because it’s a requisite to participate in federal financial aid programs, said Pietro Sasso, who teaches higher education at Monmouth University in New Jersey.

But the most UVa is likely to receive is a warning, Sasso said. If it didn’t change things the association said needed to be changed, UVa could eventually see stronger action, he said.

And a warning isn’t the sort of thing an institution wants to trumpet.

“It’s more damaging to PR than for the function of the institution,” Sasso said.

Sasso also said UVa’s case is notable because it’s a flagship institution being called to task after a very public falling out, and one in which people are questioning whether it’s upheld its duty to the public.

UVa officials were already worrying about the association in May, months before the crisis.

Sullivan told the board then that one major reservation she had before taking the job leading UVa was coming back into the area accredited by the association. She was worried at the time about its “institutional effectiveness” standard.

“Every year, they take a doctoral-level institution hostage,” Sullivan said, noting that this could be UVa’s year.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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