Few outside of the academy are aware of how accreditation operates. Few within the academy have direct contact with accreditors and fewer typically care. Yet accreditation authorities play a key role in protecting the integrity of institutions of higher education that may prove crucial in coming days.
I served as chair of the UNC Faculty Assembly, which represents all 17 system campuses, from 2008-2010. I also was faculty chair at UNC-Chapel Hill from 2003-2006, a time when there was a semblance of shared governance. I have grown increasingly concerned about interference by legislators and members of the UNC Board of Governors.
Regional accreditors play two significant roles. They function to articulate consensus standards on minimum institutional quality for institutions within their purview. More pragmatically, they serve as the gateway for students’ access to federal financial aid.
Federal authorities can also designate specialized accrediting bodies with in-depth expertise in particular fields. For example, the American Bar Association governs law schools in order to achieve these stated interests but also as a representative of state supreme courts. Only graduates of ABA-approved law schools can sit for the bar in states other than where they went to school. For university-affiliated law schools, both regional accreditors’ and specialized ABA-accreditation rules apply.
The Southern Association of Schools and Colleges Commission on Colleges oversees universities and colleges in North Carolina, while other regional accreditors oversee colleges elsewhere. The association and its peer organizations conduct routine reviews designed to assure that accreditation, once granted, should be extended in future years. Regional accreditors can also intervene, based on complaints, when others suggest that an institution may be out of compliance.
Standards set by the association to govern accreditation are similar to those applied elsewhere. Here are a few I believe to be most important and relevant to recent events involving the University of North Carolina:
1.1 The institution operates with integrity in all matters. (Integrity)
2.2 The institution has a governing board of at least five members that is the legal body with specific authority over the institution. … The board is not controlled by a minority of board members or by organizations or interests separate from it. (Governing board)
3.2.4 The governing board is free from undue influence from political, religious or other external bodies and protects the institution from such influence. (External influence)
3.2.11 The institution’s chief executive officer has ultimate responsibility for, and exercises appropriate administrative and fiscal control over, the institution’s intercollegiate athletics program. (Control of intercollegiate athletics)
3.4.10 The institution places primary responsibility for the content, quality and effectiveness of the curriculum with its faculty. (Responsibility for curriculum)
3.7.4 The institution ensures adequate procedures for safeguarding and protecting academic freedom. (Academic freedom)
3.6.2 The institution structures its graduate curricula (1) to include knowledge of the literature of the discipline and (2) to ensure ongoing student engagement in research and/or appropriate professional practice and training experiences. (Graduate curriculum)
3.6.4 The institution defines and publishes requirements for its graduate and post-baccalaureate professional programs. These requirements conform to commonly accepted standards and practices for degree programs. (Post-baccalaureate program requirements)
I served for more than 35 years on the faculty at the UNC School of Law, including 10 years as dean, before retiring in December 2016. I therefore speak for myself.
The Southern Association of Schools and Colleges Commission on Colleges accepts complaints from faculty, students and others. For information, go to www.sacscoc.org/pdf/
pdf. If some of North Carolina’s leaders are the source rather than the remedy to crucial problems, perhaps accreditors will be there to help navigate the worst of these growing threats.
Judith Wegner is former dean of the UNC School of Law.