Severity of UNC probation for academic scandal questioned

UNC chancellor Carol Folt answers questions during a meeting with the staff of the News & Observer on Thursday, October 23, 2014 in Raleigh, N.C.
UNC chancellor Carol Folt answers questions during a meeting with the staff of the News & Observer on Thursday, October 23, 2014 in Raleigh, N.C.

To national fanfare last month, UNC-Chapel Hill announced a new research push with GlaxoSmithKline with the audacious goal of curing HIV/AIDS. If the quest is successful, it would be a historic accomplishment in science, saving millions of lives around the globe.

The splashy announcement was followed a month later by a reputational blow when UNC received probation by its accrediting agency – a serious and rare sanction for a university of UNC’s stature.

Probation is a step shy of UNC losing its accreditation altogether, a situation that can be insurmountable for any college because it means the loss of federal funding. In the vote to deliver probation, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools’ Commission on Colleges cited seven accreditation principles that UNC failed to comply with, including institutional integrity.

It was the latest fallout from the academic and athletic scandals that have dragged on for several years at the university, where an investigation last October revealed that more than 3,100 students had taken sham classes over nearly two decades. Various employees had some knowledge of the scheme, which kept athletes eligible to compete, the report stated.

Intense interest in UNC’s plight has largely focused on possible sanctions for the university’s athletic programs after five major allegations by the NCAA earlier this month. The outcome should become clear sometime next year; possible sanctions could include scholarship losses, postseason bans or vacated wins.

The NCAA may not be the worst of UNC’s worries, though. After all, many of the university’s peers have been investigated and punished by the NCAA. Few have been hit with a serious accreditation scare.

“This is a major embarrassment for what is, by all accounts, one of the best research universities in the world,” said Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education. “This is the sort of problem that should not happen at a place like UNC.”

Hartle pointed out that The Times of London recently put UNC at No. 46 on the list of the world’s best universities, “which makes this all the more troubling for anybody associated with the university.” UNC had ranked 30th on that list five years ago.

Accrediting bodies keep watch over colleges and universities to ensure academic quality and adherence to standards through regular cycles of peer review. There are five regional accrediting organizations that monitor four-year colleges and universities in the United States. Though sanctions are not entirely comparable across the country, probation is rare. According to the Washington-based Council for Higher Education Accreditation, 20 colleges and universities in the U.S. received probation in 2014. Only 16 had their accreditations withdrawn.

Sanctions are most typically given to universities on the basis of financial problems. At its June 11 meeting, the Southern regional board reviewed more than 100 colleges and universities. Most were reaffirmed or given accreditation for new or expanded degree programs. Others had new programs denied, and a few were placed on warning – a less serious sanction than probation.

Only six were put on probation or continued on probation this month. Besides UNC, they were: Louisiana College; Bauder College and Paine College, both in Georgia; Bluefield College in Virginia; and South Carolina State University, which this week declared financial exigency, akin to bankruptcy.

UNC is expecting a letter soon detailing the rationale of the commission’s action, according to a spokesman.

Folt reassuring

UNC Chancellor Carol Folt expressed determination to answer the accreditor’s questions the second time around. Earlier this year, after October’s Wainstein report that revealed the extent of the scandal, UNC sent a 200-page response to the commission’s questions.

“We’re not taking our eye off this,” she said in an interview just after learning of the probation.

Part of Folt’s initial response was one of reassuring faculty, donors and others that UNC has not lost accreditation and that probation won’t result in any removal of federal financial aid to students or federal grants to researchers. In letter to the community, Folt couched the commission’s action and UNC’s reaction in positive terms, writing, “We have the utmost confidence in our present compliance and in the effectiveness of the many reforms implemented in recent years and will embrace the opportunity during the one-year period of probation to prove that even further.”

The SACS review team will likely want to interact with two new working groups formed by Folt and announced in May. One will focus on policies and procedures, and the other will focus on ethics and integrity.

“I’m sure that they’re going to say, ‘We want to see, maybe come meet with that ethics review panel,’” she said. “What are they doing? What are they putting in place? How are we going to have a very careful process and be transparent about it? I expect that. Those all take a lot of effort.”

The probation will also delay by one year UNC’s regular 10-year accreditation, which was supposed to occur next year. It is now scheduled for 2017.

Belle Wheelan, president of the commission, has said UNC seems to be taking considerable action to right the wrongs of the past. The probation will be re-evaluated next year.

‘Not the end of the world’

Some were not sure what to make of the probation designation and whether it had teeth. Brian Rosenberg, president of Macalester College in Minnesota, wrote a scathing column last year for the Chronicle of Higher Education arguing that UNC should lose accreditation.

“Any accrediting agency that would overlook a violation of this magnitude would both delegitimize itself and appear hopelessly hypocritical if it attempted, now or in the future, to threaten or sanction institutions – generally those with much less wealth and influence – for violations much smaller in scale,” he wrote in October.

Last week, Rosenberg said it was hard to tell how serious probation is in UNC’s case.

“If it’s simply a one-year waiting period, at the end of which accreditation will be more or less automatically granted, it doesn’t seem like a very serious response to dishonesty of this magnitude,” he wrote in an email. “If, however, Chapel Hill will have to provide evidence of a change in culture and oversight in order to receive full accreditation, then the response of SACS seems to me appropriate.”

Hartle predicted that there would be no lasting damage for UNC.

“This is not the end of the world,” he said. “It does not mean that UNC is not a first-class institution. It means that they have a problem and that they need to move aggressively to solve it.”

He said others had faced serious crises outside of accreditation risks, citing Penn State University’s legal and moral crisis over the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse case and Virginia Tech’s mass shooting, in which a mentally disturbed student killed 32 people. This year, the NCAA handed down multiple sanctions after an eight-year investigation of an athletic scandal at Syracuse University.

“All of these schools made changes, and they are better for having done it,” Hartle said.

And now UNC must do the same, he said.

“It’s absolutely critical that they do this because they have to put it behind them,” he said. “The only way they can do it is by taking very strong, serious action and documenting to their accreditor that they have got this one covered, that it’s not going to happen again. It’s just an albatross that the university will have to deal with.”

Stancill: 919-829-4559;

Twitter: @janestancill

Standards cited by SACS

▪ Principle of Integrity: 1.1

This standard expects an institution to operate with integrity in all matters.

▪ Core Requirement: 2.7.2 (Program Content)

This standard expects an institution to offer degree programs that embody a coherent course of study that is compatible with its stated mission and is based upon fields of study appropriate to higher education. Further, coherence should be a critical component of an educational program and should demonstrate an appropriate sequencing of courses, not a mere bundling of credits, so that student learning is progressively more advanced in terms of assignments in a field of study that allows students to integrate knowledge and grow in critical skills.

▪ Comprehensive Standard: 3.2.11 (Control of Intercollegiate Athletics)

This standard expects an institution's chief executive officer to have ultimate responsibility for, and exercise appropriate administrative and fiscal control over, the institution's intercollegiate athletic programs, including the academic standards for athletes.

▪ Comprehensive Standard: 3.4.9 (Academic Support Services)

This standard expects an institution to provide appropriate academic support services. Further, the services are designed to strengthen academic programs and ensure the success of students and faculty in meeting the goals of the educational programs.

▪ Comprehensive Standard: 3.7.4 (Academic Freedom)

This standard expects an institution to ensure adequate procedures for safeguarding and protecting academic freedom.

▪ Comprehensive Standard: 3.7.5 (Faculty Role in Governance)

This standard expects an institution to publish policies on the responsibility and authority of faculty in academic and governance matters.

▪ Federal Requirements: 4.7 (Title IV Program Responsibilities)

This standard expects an institution to be in compliance with its program responsibilities under Title IV of the most recent Higher Education Act as amended.

Source: Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges

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