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UVa put on warning by accreditation group

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Posted: Tuesday, December 11, 2012 8:49 pm | Updated: 10:06 pm, Tue Dec 11, 2012.

The fallout from the leadership crisis at the University of Virginia will extend for at least another year as the venerable school faces a rare, perhaps unprecedented sanction from its accrediting agency.

In the latest embarrassment spawned by the failed push to oust school President Teresa A. Sullivan, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges on Tuesday placed UVa on a one-year warning. The panel determined that the university failed to comply with the agency’s governance standards.

An agency team will visit the school to investigate the forced resignation and subsequent reinstatement of Sullivan, the first woman to lead the storied university. The commission will decide in about a year whether to remove the warning, one of two actions the panel can take short of pulling accreditation. Probation is more severe.

“I have great faith that the university’s going to take care of this expeditiously,” said commission President Belle Wheelan. “Nobody wants to have a sanction hanging over their head.”

Neither UVa officials nor the university historian could recall the school facing a similar sanction from an oversight body.

At issue is whether the university is governed by a minority of the Board of Visitors, headed by Rector Helen E. Dragas, who led the push to oust Sullivan. The university also must prove to the accrediting agency that it has a policy laying out the role of faculty in governance.

“The information that they submitted to us did not adequately explain what the process had been,” Wheelan said. It also didn’t explain sufficiently what the new policy is. And the new steps aren’t fully in place yet, she said.

The commission examines institutions against a set of written standards. Accreditation through the commission and similar organizations is voluntary, but required to receive federal funding.

“While the decision is disappointing, the University of Virginia pledges to work diligently to address the concerns cited by the commission,” UVa Executive Vice President and Provost John Simon wrote in an email from Dallas, where the decision was announced. “For the past several months and in the spirit of continuous improvement, the Board of Visitors and University leadership have been proactively working together to review governance practices and policies to ensure the highest level of transparency, accountability and responsiveness to all those it serves.”

The university and the commission traded letters through the fall. UVa’s last communication pointed to governance changes the school had made.

Among the most substantial changes is a new requirement that a full board vote is required to either fire a president or accept a president’s resignation. The summer’s crisis kicked off when Dragas pushed Sullivan to resign, then assembled a fraction of the board’s executive committee to accept the resignation. After massive protest, the board unanimously reinstated the president.

“These are extraordinary times for the University of Virginia and for all of higher education,” Simon wrote. “I appreciate the many ways in which our community of learning has come together these past months and I thank you for your ongoing support as we address the many opportunities and challenges facing higher education.”

He wrote that the action “does not imply any criticism” of the university’s academics, nor does it affect the university’s ability to receive federal money.

“I think it ... sort of confirms the view that the Faculty Senate has been taking — that you can’t just push the reset button and go back,” said Faculty Senate Chairman George Cohen.

Cohen called the commission’s actions understandable. He emphasized that the decision is about the board, not the faculty, students or academic programming.

“It’s a reputational concern, obviously, but it’s not going to have that kind of immediate financial effect,” Cohen said.

Cohen said he thinks improvements have been made and continue.

“That’s the challenge that the [commission] warning gives us,” he said. “We have to do better, and I think we will. We’ll come out of this fine, but it’s going to take some effort.”

Molly Broad, president of the American Council on Education, called the commission’s decision “an acknowledgement that the accrediting organization felt it necessary to go in and review” the facts about the integrity of UVa’s governance.

“Yes, it’s a very big deal, but I also think the message has been heard by the university community, and that is why I believe that it will not in any way harm the reputation of this great university,” she said.

Broad said she thinks the strong role faculty members played in the tumult might make the institution appear more, not less, attractive to other academics.

The small committee of peers that travels to UVa will “go to the institution and try to find out what happened, and what the institution is doing to get back into compliance,” Wheelan said. The committee will generate a report based on UVa documents and interviews with members of UVa’s board, administrators and faculty members, among other sources, Wheelan said.

When UVa again goes before the commission in December 2013, it will be technically possible but highly unlikely that the board could revoke UVa’s accreditation, Wheelan said. The board also will have the options of continuing UVa on warning, putting the school on probation or removing the warning, Wheelan said.

Joan Fenton, a local activist who began following UVa’s board during the crisis and since has been live-streaming its meetings online, said she’s glad the commission will be keeping an eye on UVa.

“The consequence is really directed toward the board and its policies, and the problem started with the board and its lack of policies,” she said.

Laura Goldblatt, a graduate student in English, said members of Hoos University, a group advocating governance reform at UVa, plan to attend a public forum scheduled for today in Newcomb Hall by the university planning committee looking at what it means to be a modern public university.

“What has become really apparent is that decisions are never made with an eye toward student, faculty or alumni input,” she said.

The group is calling for a voting faculty member and staff member, elected by their colleagues, to serve on the board.

The university official in charge of planning efforts said officials will pay close attention to questions from the team the commission sends to UVa, and those questions might feed into UVa’s planning discussions in the spring.

“In the short term, [the commission’s] decision today will not change our schedule and discussions, but we will look for opportunities to ‘work diligently to address concerns cited by the Commission’ and ‘identify best practices ... so that the University may become a model for higher education governance’ as Provost Simon said in his email earlier today,” wrote Senior Vice Provost J. Milton Adams in an email.

An earlier letter from the commission to UVa raised concerns about the institution’s integrity, but apparently materials UVa provided alleviated those concerns, Wheelan said.

University historian Alexander “Sandy” Gilliam said he can’t remember the university ever getting in this level of trouble with an oversight body, though he cautioned that doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened.

The UVa Medical Center could not immediately provide information on whether it had ever faced accreditation difficulties.

University spokesman McGregor McCance declined to comment.

Dragas did not reply to a request for comment.