The $36,000,000 Accreditation Bet
The current controversy isn’t about Mr. Allison’s background as a school vouchers advocate. It isn’t about a career as a lobbyist, or that he was one of the members of the Board of Governors most involved in giving $2.6 million in University of North Carolina funds to the Sons of Confederate Veterans. As many have pointed out, his relationships with the Board of Governors and the North Carolina General Assembly could be a significant asset for Fayetteville State if it means “leveraging strategic partnerships”—that is, bringing money and resources to the campus and the community.
No, the reason the Faculty Senate—a body of elected representatives from every academic department on campus—voted on Friday for the Boards of Trustees and Governors to declare the search “failed” is because it risks Fayetteville State’s accreditation.
All colleges and universities depend on third-party accreditation to vouch to students, potential employers, the community at large, and the federal government that teachers are teaching, students are learning, and that the institution is engaged in a good-faith, continuing effort to improve. Accreditation is a taxing process at the best of times—Fayetteville State faculty, administrators, and staff are already over a year into completing our once-a-decade major reaccreditation application.
But our accrediting body, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), takes a particularly dim view of searches for senior leadership that are improper or manipulated by outside forces. On page 14 of their Principles of Accreditation, we see that the governing board (our Board of Trustees) needs to make sure that it:
“Defines and addresses potential conflict of interest for its members.”
“Protects the institution from undue influence by external persons or bodies.”
What’s more, page 25 of the SACS Resource Manual for the Principles of Accreditation reads in part:
“To maintain the integrity of the educational enterprise, the governing board—responsible for establishing broad institutional policies—should be free of inappropriate influence.”
So what does undue influence look like? According to an anonymous FSU Board of Trustees member:
“It would be fair to say that he [Allison] was no one’s first choice in the selection process...But it was obvious that he would be the first choice of [UNC System President] Peter Hans and the board and he has support from the General Assembly.”
“The reality is that this is a political process,” the trustee said. “I’m not saying it hasn’t always been a political process, to some degree. But it is now a more political process than it has ever been. To try to deny that is trying to deny reality. So you have to go with the candidates you think will be approved. That was the argument for adding him.”
We don’t have to look far to find SACS calling an institution’s accreditation into question because of a senior executive search that had allegations of inappropriate external influence. The University of South Carolina went through an ugly accreditation process that you can read about here and the inquiry about their presidential search was only resolved in January 2021, a year and a half after it began. (See the monitoring report here.)
Our nursing program and online MBA program are major attractions to students. Many of our programs in humanities and social sciences are expanding with the pivot to online degree completion. What happens to student recruitment and retention in the midst of an accreditation fight?
Needless to say, if we lose accreditation the financial impact on the school, community, and region will be devastating. Immediately gone will be the $36,000,000 in federal financial aid and noncapital grants the university receives. Non-accredited schools are also ineligible for federal-backed student loans. GI Bill benefits would be on pause until we were able to be re-accredited by a state accrediting agency.
No Pell Grants and no federal loans would mean skyrocketing costs of attendance, a major blow to a school that has the lowest tuition outside of the NC Promise set of schools and is ranked 64th in the entire nation in promoting social mobility.
So while Mr. Allison’s experiences and skill set could be a real asset to our university, the alleged process by which he obtained this appointment poses a serious risk to Fayetteville State’s future. The Board of Trustees and the Board of Governors, both of which have a fiduciary duty to the university, have gambled at least $36,000,000 a year. No wonder the alumni and the faculty are sounding the alarm.
Blog posts are written by individual FSU-AAUP members and do not necessarily reflect the entire membership.