09/26/2012 10:26 am ET Updated Nov 26, 2012

Letter Never Sent

The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) -- a body that accredits educational institutions in 11 states, including Virginia -- inquired June 25 as to whether our University had acted in line with SACS' governing principles during the attempted ouster of University President Teresa Sullivan. Our accreditation rides on this inquiry, and the manner in which University leadership has responded to this request has done little to allay this most serious threat.

Accreditation is a process wherein a body approved by the Department of Education certifies that a school has met certain standards. SACS is one of the eight regional agencies that together accredit most non-profit institutions of higher education in the U.S. Having accreditation not only provides a measure of quality assurance -- so employers can verify a degree -- but also makes it easier for academic credits to transfer across different schools. Accredited schools also gain eligibility for Title IV funding, which are monies allocated to financial aid measures such as Pell Grants and several types of student loans.

SACS had paid attention to reports in the media about the leadership crisis. Consequently, it was concerned that our University may have breached three guidelines in the Principles of Accreditation, something of a tome for the body. For fairness' sake, the University had a chance to respond to this hearsay by July 31. Sullivan met with SACS July 11 to discuss these violations, seeking a direct meeting instead of a written response, according to NBC 29. She has since recused herself from the process citing a conflict of interest. After two extensions, a response to the inquiry approved by the Board and overseen by Provost John Simon was turned in only last Thursday.

Considering how much weight was on the Board's response -- it was the institution's only line of defense -- such lateness is plain unacceptable. But the Board's lack of punctuality was even more damning given the specific charges leveled against it. Most significant among the rules the Board may have broken was the principle of integrity by which SACS abides. "[E]vidence of withholding information, providing inaccurate information to the public, failing to provide timely and accurate information to the Commission... will be seen as the lack of a full commitment to integrity," according to SACS. Perhaps the Board's integrity was originally questioned because the body did not openly give information; now, its untimeliness also transgresses what is literally the first rule in the book.

The unprofessional nature of the response is also a blemish. An incorrect date says President Sullivan resigned on Sunday, June 11 rather than June 10; a typo says "the BOV has taken steps to insure [sic] that policies, procedures and expectations are both improved and clarified...."

Now for the content itself. The Board gives a point-by-point refutation of the three allegations leveled by SACS. These violations concern the principle of integrity, a standard which asks for the faculty role in governance to be clearly articulated and a requirement stipulating that boards not be controlled by minority. The apologetic but adamant tone of the letter is similar to the Board's prior statements. One new explanation does emerge, when the Board states that its manual does spell out how to remove a president, but not how to ask one to resign -- so how could members know what to do? But the Board should not have taken an omission in the rules as a free pass to proceed uninhibited. Actually, the reason the manual doesn't have a section on "forced resignations" is probably because such practice is a suboptimal and circuitous way to remove someone by intimidation instead of doing things properly.

Students know that turning an essay in late and with errors can cost them. The mistakes are magnified when they occur in a University's apologia to preserve accreditation. We hope SACS will grade kindly.

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