Accrediting agency wants clear action from UNC

jstancill@newsobserver.comdkane@newsobserver.comFebruary 12, 2013 

  • What is SACS?

    The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools monitors the academic quality of schools and colleges across the South. Its board can issue colleges a warning, or worse, probation. If a school on probation does not clearly address problems, it could lose accreditation.

In a strongly worded notice from its accrediting agency, UNC-Chapel Hill has been told that it must ensure the legitimacy of degrees awarded to an unknown number of graduates who took bogus classes going back to the 1990s.

The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools’ Commission on Colleges stopped short of suggesting that the degrees be voided. But the university “did not provide sufficient evidence that it had addressed the breaches of academic integrity” of degrees to students who took irregular African and Afro-American studies courses, wrote Belle Wheelan, SACS president, in a Jan. 15 letter to UNC-CH Chancellor Holden Thorp.

In an interview Tuesday, Wheelan said one solution would be for UNC-CH to bring back those graduates and provide them with free courses to take the place of the bogus ones.

“Is it really fair for them to have that degree versus students who got the same degree but actually did the work for those classes in question?” Wheelan posed. “So some way of going back to clean that up is what we’re looking for.”

Wheelan said she is not talking about voiding a graduate’s degree, but rather, “making that degree whole.”

But finding those graduates, and having them take extra courses years later, would likely be a monumental undertaking.

“I think it would be a huge challenge,” said Thorp, who added that he doesn’t know the number of graduates who took improperly taught African studies classes.

A review by former Gov. Jim Martin and the Baker Tilly management consulting firm, released in December, found more than 200 courses with little or no instruction dating back to 1997. These included no-show classes and independent studies with poor oversight. That report also identified 560 grade changes without proper authorization.

Asked why any former student would return for an extra course, Wheelan said: “Integrity. Honesty. Fairness. You know, all those things we like to think they learned as part of that academic program in the first place.”

A team assembled by the accrediting body, SACS, is scheduled to visit UNC-CH in April. It will be led by Bowen Loftin, president of Texas A&M University.

That visit grew out of a SACS commission board meeting in December. The board did not officially sanction UNC-CH but ordered a monitoring report by the outside team.

Thorp said an independent analysis of UNC-CH’s new academic procedures was not available at the time the commission’s board met in December. That study, by Baker Tilly, found no gaps in implementation of about 70 policy and procedure changes at UNC-CH in the aftermath of the academic scandal, which involved a disproportionate number of athletes.

Thorp said he hopes the reforms and the Baker Tilly report will reassure the SACS team that UNC-CH is doing all it can to prevent academic fraud in the future.

“I think that will be incredibly important to them, and that may go a long way,” Thorp said.

Seeking an alternative

The chancellor said he wants to work with SACS on another alternative to forcing extra classes on UNC-CH graduates.

“We have maintained all along that none of this was the students’ fault,” Thorp said, “and so we will be impressing that on SACS and trying to work with them on what a solution would be.”

Wheelan’s letter outlined the areas found deficient at UNC-CH by the commission’s board at its December meeting. It asks the university to provide evidence that it has implemented changes in academic policies, academic support services, student records and rules about student credit hours.

The outside SACS team will report its findings to the commission board, which could take action in June. A university could receive a warning, or worse, probation. After that could come a loss of accreditation, which likely would mean the death knell for a college or university, because it would no longer eligible to receive federal financial aid dollars. A shutdown would be inevitable.

The higher education establishment took notice last year when the University of Virginia was placed on warning by SACS because its board violated governance rules in the failed ouster of its president. Such warnings are a blow to a university’s academic reputation. Though they are relatively common at small colleges, they aren’t typically levied against prestigious public universities.

Terry Hartle, senior vice president for the American Council on Education, said UNC-CH officials have no choice but to “carefully and thoroughly” respond to SACS’ concerns.

“The University of North Carolina cares enormously about its reputation, and this is something that goes to its reputation — specifically around the issue of academic integrity,” Hartle said. “I am sure that the letter sent to the university is being treated as seriously as a heart attack.”

Thorp said he was relieved that UNC-CH was not placed on a warning last December.

“From the very beginning when we first found out what we had, I felt that the most important facet of this would be the way we dealt with SACS,” he said. “That part was more important to me than any of the other things that frankly have gotten more attention. But to me this is the most important aspect of this whole thing.”

‘Better clean it up’

Wheelan said SACS wants to be reassured that the policy changes have been implemented and that UNC-CH is in compliance with accreditation standards.

Her letter, she said, had strong language on purpose.

“They have some questionable practices going on here. If you don’t want to get on our bad institution list, then you better clean it up before that happens.”

The fact that the fraud went back for years is troublesome, she said.

“That’s a longstanding problem that was not picked up by us or the institution, and so, yeah, you have to wonder who was asleep at the wheel and what happened,” Wheelan said. “But the institution is now addressing it, and that’s what’s important.”

Stancill: 919-829-4559

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