Accreditors in firing line as US political temperature rises
Times Higher Education
March 10, 2023
US higher education leaders in conservative-dominated states are starting to demand a more aggressive form of accreditation oversight, calling the federally derived authority a vital and somewhat untapped tool for protecting academic freedom.
The appeal for a new breed of activist accrediting agencies is a response to politicians in Florida and beyond overturning governing boards and ousting presidents at public institutions in a bid to deter classroom instruction and human rights protections in areas of racial and gender equity.
“It’s a national issue, and it’s changing the entire face of higher education,” said Belle Wheelan, president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, one of the six major regional accrediting agencies spread across the US.
Sacs’ geographical zone – the conservative-dominated south-eastern portion of the US – has left Dr Wheelan repeatedly confronting concerns over political interference in academia in several locations, across Florida, Georgia and Virginia. Sacs has helped institutions in those states fight back by quickly issuing public statements warning about specific actions at colleges and universities that it believes could lead to a loss of accreditation – a status that is vital for institutional credibility and for eligibility for federal student aid.
But other accreditors appear less willing to adjust their reactions as the political pressure increases. The regional accrediting body in the opposite corner of the country, the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, did just help block a second presidential ousting in the space of 18 months at North Idaho College by publicly warning that such firings by a conservative-dominated board of trustees could lead to NIC’s loss of accreditation.
A judge’s order led to the restoration, at least temporarily, of the North Idaho president, Nick Swayne, after the trustees did the same thing in 2021 to their president at the time, Rick MacLennan, in an apparent protest against Dr MacLennan’s support for a campus face mask mandate.