Accreditors Must Stop Exerting Ideological Influence in Higher Ed

Accreditors Must Stop Exerting Ideological Influence in Higher Ed
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Florida State University (FSU) has removed Richard Corcoran from its shortlist of candidates nominated to be the university’s next president. According to Breitbart, the search committee canceled Corcoran in response to a letter it received from the university’s accreditor, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC).

The National Association of Scholars (NAS), where I serve as president, has had no prior involvement in this matter and has not endorsed any candidate for FSU’s presidency. In response to the report on Breitbart, we attempted to confirm the facts. The president of SACSCOC, Belle Wheelan, did indeed write to the Florida Board of Governors chairman Sydney Kitson on May 13, expressing concerns about the search, and especially warning that an unnamed candidate had a potential conflict of interest. This was a thinly veiled reference to Corcoran, who serves on the Florida Board of Governors.

Conflicts of interest of this sort are common and are usually handled by the member recusing himself or stepping aside from his position. Disqualifying a candidate on this basis is unusual. It’s even more unusual for a regional accreditor to intervene in a presidential search.

The Corcoran affair, however, is not the first time that SACSCOC has done so. In April, it inserted itself into considerations regarding former Georgia governor Sonny Perdue’s candidacy to head that state’s higher education system. In that case, Wheelan also sent a letter to the board of regents. Wheelan did so, according to the Associated Press, “after reading news coverage suggesting that regents were being politically pressured to name Perdue to head the system.” She claimed her authority to act this way comes from an accrediting standard that says educational leaders must have “appropriate experience and qualifications.”

We would agree with that provision but not with Wheelan’s appropriation of it as a license to undermine the candidacies of individuals with whom she personally finds fault. Corcoran and Perdue are known political actors, as are a great many other leaders in higher education. Appointments at the highest levels of college and university administration inevitably warrant political considerations, and those considerations are entirely appropriate. Their existence, however, does not nullify a candidate’s other qualifications. It would be a difficult argument to make that either Corcoran or Perdue is unqualified or lacks “appropriate experience.” Both have long records of important public service, and both are deeply conversant with issues in higher education.

This brings me to NAS’s main concern in this case: the weaponization of an accrediting agency to dispose of candidates who are politically disfavored. Wheelan, of course, did not declare that to be her purpose, but her actions make it impossible to see her letters to the boards in Florida and Georgia in any other light.

Accrediting agencies are properly “good housekeeping” bodies that offer the public assurance that colleges and universities are in healthy financial condition and are paying due attention to the integrity of their academic programs. For the last thirty years or so, these agencies have been tempted to “lean in” on some political and ideological issues, such as promoting racial diversity. These lie outside their proper role, but SACSCOC under Wheelan’s leadership has ventured much further in transforming accreditation into a tool of political control. Threatening the accreditation of a university for considering the appointment of a highly qualified individual who happens to have the “wrong” political profile is outrageous. 

The National Association of Scholars emphatically opposes this behavior and calls on SACSCOC and all other accreditors to (1) avow their political neutrality, and (2) to affirm that they will never – or never again – interfere with a properly conducted search for higher education administrators. If a search has violated the law, the proper jurisdiction is the relevant law enforcement agency. If a search committee chooses someone viewed by others as politically objectionable, the proper recourse is to win the next election. No situation justifies an accrediting body picking political favorites in the search for college and university leaders.

I hope that SACSCOC and other accreditors see the fundamental importance of this matter, but I also recommend that the federal body that grants these agencies the authority to accredit colleges and universities – the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity – take a look at it. I have already written directly to Wheelan. I plan to write to NACIQI as well. 

I know from long experience that college accreditation is not a topic that sets people’s imagination on fire or that arouses much indignation when it goes wrong. It is the epitome of a down-in-the-weeds bureaucratic problem, but like many such problems, it has tree-top consequences. Why has American higher education become so self-destructively politicized?  Partly because we don’t pay attention when bureaucrats pursue these power grabs. It’s way past time to make them stop.  

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