How an Accreditor Became a Political Target

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tags: Florida, higher education, Accreditation

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.

But the seven regionals, as they’re known, still operate largely in their historic areas. That’s one reason SACS has fallen under attack: the 11 states in its region include some of the most deeply conservative in the country, including TexasTennessee and Florida.

Some observers have said that Trump’s attacks on accreditors last week largely echo those of DeSantis, his likely 2024 Republican rival, with whom SACS has an especially contentious relationship. The accreditor has issued warnings about certain unprecedented actions the governor has taken, including replacing most of the board at New College of Florida; in turn, DeSantis is crusading against what he calls the accreditation “cartel.”

That fight recently culminated in a bill requiring all public institutions in the state to change accreditors every five years; because SACS is still the primary accreditor there, most of Florida’s colleges and universities will be forced to find a new accreditor if the bill passes.

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Barbara Brittingham, the former president of the New England Commission of Higher Education, said the lawmakers involved don’t seem to fully comprehend the consequences of mandating accreditation switching, and she doubts that institutions would do so on their own.

“A lot of people talking about accreditation right now simply don’t understand it … I think many of them are just caught up in the political theater,” she said. “If an institution wants to switch accreditors, then fine … but if they’re forced to switch, that’s not just kind of a brutal ultimatum—it’s inefficient and expensive for the institution.”

Read entire article at Inside Higher Ed