The Political Trials of a Southern Accreditor
Inside Higher Ed
May 8, 2023
College accreditors became the latest target of conservatives’ efforts to upend higher education when former president—and 2024 presidential candidate—Donald Trump last week announced his plan to “fire” the agencies. His charge: the accreditors have failed to protect students from the “Marxist maniacs and lunatics” who he believes have taken over higher ed.
Long accustomed to maintaining a low profile outside the industry, many of the nation’s accrediting agencies may find it jarring to be thrust suddenly into the political spotlight alongside DEI initiatives and critical race theory. But for the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, it’s nothing new; for more than two years, the agency has been fending off allegations of ideological influence and “wokeness” from lawmakers—some of whom have introduced legislation to limit its influence in their states.
Belle Wheelan, longtime president of SACS, said the attacks have intensified as the culture wars have engulfed the national conversation around higher ed and ambitious actors like Florida governor Ron DeSantis look to turn colleges into political cudgels.
“There’s always been some legislative interference in higher ed. But rarely was that interference concerning academic freedom,” she said. “Things are different now, and they are much more invasive.”
There are dozens of accreditors in the country, but SACS is one of the seven major agencies that, until recently, oversaw the institutions in their geographic regions. In 2019, the Trump administration loosened restrictions to allow accreditors to monitor institutions anywhere in the country, effectively making them all “national” agencies.