Florida’s Board of Governors is at odds with the state universities’ accreditor over ‘undue influence’

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TALLAHASSEE — With Gov. Ron DeSantis expected to sign a bill that would lead to periodic changes in accrediting agencies, members of the state university system’s Board of Governors are criticizing the current accreditor of Florida colleges and universities.

The bill (SB 7044), approved during the legislative session that ended March 14, would require state colleges and universities to change accrediting agencies at the end of each accreditation cycle — a process that can last up to 10 years.

During a meeting Tuesday, Alan Levine, chairman of the Board of Governors’ Strategic Planning Committee, suggested that tensions with the current organization have been building for some time.

“I’ve held my tongue on this for a year now,” Levine said, before listing examples that he said gave him “grave concern” about the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, or SACSCOC.

Levine pointed to SACSCOC writing letters to higher-education officials on three issues at Florida State University, the University of Florida and the University of South Florida.

Last year, the agency raised questions about a potential conflict of interest involving state Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran when he was a candidate to become president of Florida State University. Corcoran is a member of the Board of Governors, which ultimately must sign off on the appointments of university presidents.

SACSCOC President Belle Wheelan wrote in a May letter to the Board of Governors that if Corcoran didn’t vacate his position on the board while a candidate for Florida State president, SACSCOC would “find the institution out of compliance” with the accrediting body’s rules.

Levine on Tuesday slammed SACSCOC for exerting what he called “undue influence” through its involvement.

“That an accrediting body, which does not act in the sunshine, we don’t have any knowledge about what information they have or what they rely on, but they sent a letter and made a public assertion about a potential violation of accreditation by a major state institution, based on something that was in the media that wasn’t even factually correct,” Levine said, disputing a statement in the letter that said the board would be “hiring” the president.

Also, in November, SACSCOC announced it was taking preliminary steps toward a probe into whether the University of Florida faced “non-compliance issues.” It asked university officials to explain a decision to block three professors from serving as expert witnesses in a high-profile voting rights lawsuit.

The university ultimately walked back the decision, allowing the professors to be hired as witnesses.

The accrediting agency also raised concerns about an issue related to a process to consolidate three campuses at the University of South Florida in 2020. State Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, had publicly weighed in on the consolidation process, leading SACSCOC to write a letter to then-USF President Steven Currall.

Levine took issue with the agency’s letter questioning whether USF officials were running afoul of SACSCOC standards, including a standard that warns against undue influence “by external persons or bodies.”

Levine described Brandes as an “influential senator” expressing his views.

“He did it in public. He made comments about his preferences and suggested what he might do if things didn’t go in a different direction,” Levine said.

Levine argued that the Board of Governors and trustees at each university exercise independent judgment in such decisions and bristled at the accreditor raising questions.

“There isn’t a single force, person, institution, agency or anyone who can get between this body and the institutions that we’re responsible for governing,” said Levine, who was joined in raising concerns by Board of Governors members Tim Cerio and Kent Stermon.

But Wheelan on Tuesday defended SACSCOC’s letters as part of a standard procedure used by accreditors.

“We have, what we call an unsolicited information policy, so that anytime anything hits the media that looks like it may put an institution out of compliance with one of our standards, we write a letter saying, ‘This has been printed, it looks like it may impact your compliance with this particular standard, tell us what’s going on,’” Wheelan said, using the letter to the University of Florida as an example.

Wheelan said SASCOC never “accused” UF of anything but was seeking information, and did the same thing in the other instances cited by Levine.

“So we ask them, tell us what’s going on. Because we don’t like our institutions to be out of compliance. It puts them in trouble with us. It potentially jeopardizes their federal financial aid. So we try to monitor what’s going on so that we can make sure they’re still in compliance,” Wheelan said.

Wheelan said she has never faced accusations like the ones Levine leveled.

“This is the first time in my almost 18 years here that I’ve ever been accused, when we sent one of those letters, of undue influence. It caught us totally off guard,” Wheelan said.

Wheelan said all accreditors “have a similar process” of making inquiries about issues at universities. Under the bill that would require schools to change accreditors, colleges and universities would continue to face similar inquiries after media reports, according to Wheelan.

“Nobody knows why they’re doing this, because I don’t think the institutions are asking for it. It sounds like it’s coming from the Board of Governors, not the institutions themselves,” Wheelan said. “I don’t know why they’re doing it, other than they think that I was treading in their territory, which I really was not.”

Levine said Tuesday that he “can’t speak to the reasons why the Legislature took the action they did” and that he had no direct conversations with lawmakers about the bill.

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