Accrediting agency questions St. Aug’s financial health

jstancill@newsobserver.comApril 2, 2014 

— Financial problems at St. Augustine’s University have prompted scrutiny by its accrediting body, according to a letter obtained by The News & Observer.

An official from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools’ Commission on Colleges wrote to the university on Feb. 28, requesting information about the university’s financial condition, including audit reports, management letters, financial aid audits, a financial statement and pending litigation.

Colleges and universities are scrutinized by SACS every 10 years, but the organization can launch additional review any time new information comes to light. The review was prompted by a Feb. 20 story in The News & Observer that reported the university’s financial problems, the letter said.

“I am writing you today because recent information from media sources regarding financial and physical resources have raised questions about Saint Augustine’s University’s ongoing compliance with the Principles of Accreditation,” wrote Robin Hoffman, vice president of the SACS Commission on Colleges.

The letter was addressed to St. Aug’s President Dianne Boardley Suber, who had no comment on the matter Wednesday. SACS requested the additional information be submitted no later than Monday of this week. It was unclear Wednesday whether the school met the deadline.

The February N&O story detailed the university’s financial duress, outlined in audits that showed delayed and disorganized accounting functions and questionable check-writing procedures. Financial statements showed a $3 million drop in net tuition revenue last year because of falling enrollment. St. Aug’s owed overtime payments to workers following a U.S. Department of Labor review. And the university is being sued by the contractor of its unfinished football stadium.

The university has seen dramatic turnover in its administrative ranks, and on March 17, Suber put the provost, Connie Allen, on paid leave. This week, it emerged that federal officials are investigating whether the university improperly sought a grant for minority health research.

St. Aug’s accreditation was last reaffirmed in 2011 without sanctions. The university was due for another comprehensive review in 2016, according to the SACS website.

SACS monitors colleges and universities for academic quality, financial viability and adherence to standards. If the association’s Commission on Colleges finds deficiencies, it can issue a warning, put a school on probation or revoke accreditation altogether. A loss of accreditation often leads to a school closing its doors because it is ineligible for federal money.

If SACS finds that the new financial information is factual and related to accreditation standards, a SACS committee can conduct a formal review or a special committee can be formed to do a review.

Hoffman of SACS did not respond to a phone message or email Wednesday.

In November, SACS also notified the university that it was required to submit a prospectus for a new online master’s degree in organizational leadership, because the university is not approved to offer a degree in which half or more of the credits are accomplished through distance learning. The university has begun to market the new degree program, which is set to begin in August.

Graduate degree offerings were part of the plan when St. Aug’s changed from a college to a university in 2012. The organizational leadership degree will have concentrations in management, sports management and health care administration. It is the first of at least five fully online programs St. Aug’s plans to offer using an online platform by Pearson, a large education company.

“The University has been poised to offer graduate programs for a number of years,” Suber said in a news release announcing the graduate program last week. “However, the timing now seems right – especially online.”

But in her November letter, SACS President Belle Wheelan wrote that because the new master’s degree “appears to be a significant departure from existing approved degree programs, a prospectus is required.”

It’s unclear whether St. Aug’s has submitted the prospectus, which is due at least three months before the degree is offered.

Stancill: 919-829-4559

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service