Addressing Accreditation

The most serious decision North Carolina faces in the aftermath of the Wainstein Report isn’t coming from the NCAA. It’s coming from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC), which has the power to pull UNC’s accreditation -- but won't.

Colleges that lose accreditation aren’t eligible for state or federal aid, which adds up to hundreds of millions of dollars for a university of UNC’s size and could force the school to close. However, the severity of the penalty and SACSCOC’s mission are big reasons why it’s almost impossible that Carolina would receive the ultimate punishment.

“The goal is the improvement of the institutions,” said Dr. Pamela Cravey, the Coordinator of Communications and External Affairs at SACSCOC. “We like to ensure that they are compliant, not to try to kick them out.”

It is extremely rare for any college to lose its accreditation, and would be unprecedented for a research university of UNC’s size and stature. The only school to lose its accreditation from SACSCOC last year was Mid-Continent University in Kentucky, which had filed for bankruptcy and was no longer offering classes. Brewton-Parker College in Georgia was stripped of its accreditation in June, but appealed and regained its status in December.

It’s also important to note the differences between the NCAA – which has 500 employees, more than $500 million in unrestricted assets and the ability to conduct exhaustive investigations – and SACSCOC, which has 50 employees and largely relies on information provided by the schools, which is then reviewed by peer evaluators from similar institutions (the organization does not disclose its budget).

The SACSCOC Board of Trustees, which will rule on UNC’s case, also meets just twice a year. The next meeting is June 9-11, which helps explains why UNC and the NCAA are not waiting on SACSCOC before proceeding with the investigation.

SACSCOC can issue a warning or put schools on probation, which will give the institutions up to two years to improve before their accreditation is pulled. But unlike the NCAA, which has a range of possible punishments at its disposal, SACSCOC really only has the “death penalty” option.

There is at least one college president who has recommended that option – Brian C. Rosenberg of Macalester College in Minnesota wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education that SACSCOC should suspend UNC’s accredited status. Of course, Minnesota is not one of the 11 southern states represented in SACSCOC, and no one within SACSCOC’s territory has echoed Rosenberg’s sentiments publicly.

That’s not to say that UNC hasn’t taken SACSCOC’s concerns seriously. Following the release of the Wainstein Report, SACSCOC raised questions about UNC’s compliance with 18 of the roughly 70 standards of accreditation, and said that the “investigative report clearly refutes the institution’s claims (in 2013) that the academic fraud was relegated to the unethical actions of two people,” AFAM chairman Julius Nyang’oro and AFAM secretary Deborah Crowder.

The university spent two months crafting a response under the direction of Lynn Williford, Assistant Provost for Institutional Research and Assessment.

“Carolina accepts full responsibility for the wrongdoing, has apologized repeatedly and forthrightly to the impacted students and alumni, and will continue to monitor previous reforms and institute additional measures, wherever needed, to ensure and enhance academic integrity,” UNC wrote.

The response said that UNC has kept SACSCOC informed throughout the process and outlined the reforms the school has made that “will prevent the irregularities from ever recurring in Chapel Hill.”

Since the paper-class system at the heart of the Wainstein Report ended in 2011, UNC has changed over most of its leadership positions, hiring a new chancellor, provost, chief financial officer, athletic director, football coach and faculty athletics representative to the NCAA. There will soon be a new general counsel and a new dean of arts and sciences.

There may still be fallout from the Wainstein Report, especially if the NCAA decides to weigh in. But the loss of accreditation will not be in the university’s future.

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