When the crossover deadline passed at the North Carolina General Assembly last week, some of the most controversial higher education-related bills filed this legislative session hadn’t yet passed from one chamber to the other, taking them off of the conventional path to becoming law. But Senate Bill 680, which would dramatically change the way universities within the UNC System and the state’s community colleges are accredited, made it across the finish line.
The bill, which counts among its primary sponsors state Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, would compel UNC campuses and community colleges to change their accrediting agency each cycle. It would also allow universities and community colleges to bring a civil action against “any person who makes a false statement to the accrediting agency of the constituent institution” — a provision critics say could chill even legitimate complaints.
The move comes amid national tensions between conservative lawmakers and accreditors, highlighted by recent attacks on accreditors by former President Donald Trump. In a video he posted last week, Trump vowed to “fire” accreditors he said have failed to protect students from colleges “dominated by Marxist maniacs and lunatics.”
On Wednesday afternoon, the nonprofit Coalition for Carolina will host an online roundtable discussion with education experts concerned about what they say is the politicization of the accreditation process. Moderated by UNC-Chapel Hill Faculty Chair Mimi Chapman, the 2 p.m. panel will include:
- Dr. Holden Thorp, former chancellor of UNC-Chapel Hill and editor-in-chief of Science magazine.
- Dr. Rosalyn Artis, president of Benedict College, one of the nation’s oldest private historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).
- Dr. Jerry Lucido, scholar in residence at the University of Southern California’s Center for Enrollment Research, Policy and Practice.
- Sallie Shuping-Russell, former member of the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees, former director of UNC Healthcare and chair of Carolina Research Ventures.
“Accreditation is usually something only a provost would love,” Thorp told Newsline this week. “It’s very in the weeds.”
Thorp dealt with the process both as chancellor of UNC-Chapel Hill and provost at Washington University in St. Louis. Few people outside, or even within, higher education really understand the process, Thorp said, which can allow legislative attacks on the process to fly beneath the radar.
“We want to talk about how this works and some of the challenges because it’s very easy for people not to understand what’s going on and what could happen down the road with this,” Thorp said.
A chief concern among critics: lawmakers and their political appointees throughout state university systems may respond to accreditors’ concerns about the politicization of higher education by abandoning those agencies and shopping for accreditors with whom they are more politically aligned — including a number of new accrediting agencies built for just that purpose. That would be easier under Senate Bill 680, Thorp said.
The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools is one of the nation’s seven major accrediting agencies. It’s currently the accreditor for many large public university systems in the South where conservative lawmakers have proposed seismic shifts in public higher education — including North Carolina, Florida, Texas and Tennessee. The accreditor has publicly butted heads with Florida governor Ron DeSantis, a likely challenger for the GOP presidential nomination in 2024. Both Trump and DeSantis have championed the claim that higher education has been captured by the “radical left” as part of a national wave of conservative criticism of higher education.
In 2019, the Trump administration loosened restrictions on accreditors, allowing accreditors from anywhere in the nation to accredit colleges and universities. That opened the door for institutions to go “accreditor shopping” if states run afoul of current accrediting criteria, Thorp said — including agencies that seek to keep higher education as free as possible from political influence.
“A lot of these systems and boards are different, of course, but accreditors generally want systems to be following their own policies,” Thorp said. “In many cases, the board can change their policies and still be in compliance. If they try to do things that are against the policies before they’ve been changed, that can run into challenges with the accreditor.”
Such a conflict recently came to head when Bell Wheelan, president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, sent an inquiry letter to UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz regarding student, faculty and alumni concerns over the proposed establishment of a School of Civic Life and Leadership. The new school, which has been in the planning stages for years, has been described by some of its architects and supporters variously as a “conservative center” for UNC-Chapel Hill and an attempt to “level the playing field” at a university they believe is ideologically dominated by the political left.
Wheelan’s letter and public comments about the concern led to a strongly worded letter from eight congressional Republicans from North Carolina, suggesting Wheelan and the accrediting agency were misinformed about the school and its purpose.
“The deeper thing is probably a lot of standards that any accreditor would have about the role of the faculty and faculty hiring and setting the curriculum,” Thorp said. “If the political infrastructure is interested in having more control of all of that, then that’s probably not something that you could work around within the framework of an accreditor like SACSCOC.”
Republican lawmakers at the state and national level appear to be betting that the accrediting process is so little understood and of so little consequence to the average person that losing or changing accreditors won’t matter to those who want to go to a school with a brand as strong as UNC-Chapel Hill, Thorp said.
“And they may be right,” Thorp said. “Short-term, it probably will not matter to a high school junior who wants to go to UNC-Chapel Hill or a UNC school. Long-term, I think the accreditation matters to faculty and to funders and some of the things that may change — eliminating tenure, for example — will accelerate what we’ve seen in terms of faculty leaving the university. Long-term, that does hurt the brand of the university they’re counting on.”
More information on Wednesday’s panel, including registration information, here.
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