U-Va. accreditation still at risk as questions linger about failed presidential ouster

October 23, 2012

A regional accrediting agency was not satisfied with the University of Virginia governing board’s explanation for how and why it tried to oust the president in June, according to a letter U-Va. leaders received earlier this month. The university now faces a slew of sanctions, including possibly losing its accreditation.

The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, which accredits more than 800 colleges, including those in Virginia, was alarmed by news media reports that the ouster of President Teresa A. Sullivan in June had been orchestrated by a handful of members instead of the full board. The commission quickly raised questions about the board’s integrity, compliance with policies and interaction with faculty.

The U-Va. board responded to the accusations in late September, stating that while mistakes were made, members worked as a united group and didn’t break any rules, policies or laws. The commission responded in a letter dated Oct. 5 that “questions remain” and the matter would be reviewed by its board at a December meeting.

“There are still some pieces that we don’t feel were included in the response, so I’m taking this to the board,” said commission President Belle S. Wheelan on Tuesday during an orientation event for new Virginia governing board members. Afterward, Wheelan told reporters: “It’s made too much publicity not to go to the board.”

The commission’s board of trustees could vote to accept the U-Va. board’s explanation, ask for more information in a follow-up report, issue a warning, place the school on probation or yank the university’s accreditation, disqualifying it from receiving federal dollars and sullying its reputation, Wheelan said. The trustees could also launch their own investigation.

Wheelan said that it would be “very unusual” for U-Va. to lose its accreditation but that all other options are “possible.”

Sullivan, who was reinstated June 26, has excused herself from handling the matter. In September, the board responded to the agency’s accusations in an eight-page report, drafted with assistance from the state attorney general’s office. The report states that board members acted together in requesting Sullivan’s resignation and were not influenced by outside forces. The board maintained that it was always in compliance with the accrediting agency’s rules, board policies and laws.

“There is no more explanation to give,” the board wrote. “One can agree or disagree with the Board’s decision on the merits, but the stated reasons were, indeed, the reasons. There were, and are, no credible indicia to the contrary.”

In the Oct. 5 letter, the commission also pointed out that the U-Va. board lacked a policy for how to remove a president from office. On Friday, the U-Va. board’s governance committee recommended a policy change that would require a meeting of the full board, not just the executive committee, when requesting or forcing a president’s resignation. The board’s executive committee has approved the concept.

The university has until Nov. 12 to submit more information to the accrediting agency. In a statement Monday afternoon, a U-Va. spokesman said the board is considering a formal response.

Jenna Johnson writes about Maryland politics, including the General Assembly, the administration of Gov. Martin O'Malley and the 2014 election.
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