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Accrediting agency to visit UVa to verify changes it called for

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Posted: Sunday, September 15, 2013 6:18 pm | Updated: 10:24 am, Mon Sep 16, 2013.

The policies of the University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors will be under scrutiny during a visit by the university’s accrediting agency this week.

A committee of representatives from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools will be on Grounds to review the changes administrators have made since last year’s attempted coup of President Teresa A. Sullivan. The representatives are scheduled to arrive Monday and will be meeting with administrators until Wednesday, said university spokesman Anthony de Bruyn.

Belle Wheelan, president of SACS, said the committee will make sure the university is implementing the changes administrators have proposed to ensure important board decisions are made in the open, by a majority of board members.

“We’re looking to see they’re now in compliance with our standards,” she said.

In December, the agency will decide whether to lift the warning it placed on UVa at the end of last year, extend the warning another year, put the school on probation or — least likely — yank its accreditation.

Probation is considered a more serious sanction for institutions that have continuously failed to comply with SACS policies. It is typically — though not always — the final step before SACS removes a school’s accreditation.

The accreditation agency put UVa on warning last December, months after Sullivan’s ouster and reinstatement. SACS took issue with the fact that a handful of members of the Board of Visitors, including then-Rector Helen E. Dragas, could make the decision to fire Sullivan. The decision turned out to be highly unpopular, drawing near-universal condemnation from students, faculty, alumni, state officials and others.

Wheelan said the decision violated the organization’s governance standards. Such massive decisions, she said, cannot be made by a minority of the board. Universities also need to make sure faculty members are involved in these decisions, she said.

“A presidential evaluation needs to involve the entire board,” Wheelan said, “not just three members.”

UVa has made policy changes to address those concerns, said university spokesman McGregor McCance. The board’s manual now outlines a procedure for evaluating presidents, including a vote by the entire board. Any amendment to the contract of a president now requires a public meeting.

The board created the policy a month before SACS put the university on warning, but the university has since amended it to include a timeline for the presidential evaluation process. The changes were formally approved last month.

In May, the board approved a new policy requiring a non-voting faculty member to sit on any committee that does not already have faculty representation.

The university gave SACS a written update on the changes last month, McCance said. The update contains an outline of all of the changes the university has made since Sullivan’s firing.

“We’ve certainly kept them apprised,” he said.

Accreditation agencies ensure that colleges and universities meet a set of standards. The agencies lend a certain amount of credibility to the degrees handed out by institutions, and help students, parents and employers filter out degree mills or poorly run institutions.

Without accreditation, UVa students wouldn’t be able to secure federal financial aid.

The federal Department of Education acts as an accreditor to the accreditors — it recognizes 60 accrediting agencies nationwide. To be certified by the department, agencies must show they can enforce academic standards and that they’re consistent in their treatment of different institutions.

Judith Eaton, president of the Council of Higher Education Accreditation, said the safeguards are necessary because of the bad actors in the accreditation business. Just as some colleges act as “diploma mills,” giving out degrees to anyone willing to pay the right price, some accrediting agencies act as “accrediting mills.”

“None of our accreditors are in that universe at all,” Eaton said. “This is way, way out there.”

Wheelan said it’s the best way to give institutions in different regions a certain amount of independence. The Department of Education has the power to yank federal funding, but it doesn’t set all the rules.

“We don’t have a ministry of education, unlike other countries,” Wheelan said. “We’re not controlled by the government. We’re free to establish our own rules and regulations — that’s the beauty of our system.”

SACS accredits virtually every major college and university in the Southeast, including Emory University, the University of Georgia, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of Texas at Austin and Vanderbilt University. It also accredits hundreds of community colleges across the country.

The governing board, as required by the Department of Education, is made up of administrators from schools throughout the system and members of the public. The SACS board that will decide UVa’s accreditation fate in December includes 77 members, including 11 unaffiliated members of the public, Wheelan said.

The agency has put 20 institutions on warning since December — most of them are small, little-known schools such as Georgia Perimeter College in Decatur, Ga., and Mid-Continent University in Mayfield, Ky. Most of the warnings, which are posted regularly on the SACS website, have to do with lack of financial resources, auditing or faculty shortages.

UVa stands out significantly from the rest of the group; last week, it was named one of the top 25 universities in the country by U.S. News & World Report for the 25th straight year.

But Wheelan said it’s not unprecedented for a major school like UVa to be called out by SACS.

The University of Miami was placed on probation because it didn’t have enough full-time faculty. Texas Tech was sanctioned by the agency because of procedural problems that violated SACS guidelines.

Wheelan said UVa will just need to show it’s made good on the promise to ensure that big decisions aren’t left in the hands of a few powerful board members and made behind closed doors.

“We’re going to go in and verify they’ve done what they’ve promised to do,” she said