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Accreditation Decision Deals Fisk University New Setback

Fisk University President Hazel O’LearyFisk University President Hazel O’Leary

Fisk University, struggling financially and losing students at a steady clip, lost more ground Tuesday when the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) placed Fisk on probation, a signal the agency is still worried about the viability of the school.

SACS, based in Atlanta, is the major performance standards measuring agency for colleges in the South. A ranking of probation is the lowest rating a school can get before losing recognition by the agency, a standing that could endanger a school’s eligibility for federal funding, support from many private donors and cause it to lose current and prospective students.

In taking its action on Tuesday, the SACS Commission on Colleges rejected Fisk’s most

recent report on its efforts to address concerns raised by the agency this time a year ago and again in June 2011. While continuing the school’s accreditation, the commission gave Fisk officials 12 months to address repeated concerns over the school’s financial stability, governance and financial controls.

SACS also announced major actions involving nearly a dozen other HBCUs:

1)    It reaffirmed (for 10 years) the accreditation of Southern University of New Orleans, Elizabeth City State University, Alcorn A & M University and Jackson State universities in Mississippi, Claflin University in South Carolina, Morehouse College School of Medicine in Atlanta and Texas Southern University in Houston.

2)    It removed Bennett College, the women’s college in South Carolina, from probation and removed Tennessee State University from warning status, giving both schools a clean bill of health.

3)    It placed four schools on “warning” status, including Fort Valley State and Savannah State universities in Georgia, Edward Waters College in Florida and Jarvis Christian College in Texas.

4)    It kept Stillman College in Alabama on “warning” status.

SACS officials took no action involving Florida A&M University (FAMU) with respect to the hazing-related death last month of a school drum major. The agency, which had been notified of the tragic incident by FAMU officials, noted it was deferring any action in deference to an ongoing investigation of the incident by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. It had no public comment nor did the school.

The decision to further downgrade Fisk, by far the most damaging for a high-profile private HBCU, came despite last-minute efforts by Fisk officials to persuade members of the Commission on Colleges that progress was being made in addressing the agency’s concerns.

In a presentation at the SACS meeting in Orlando, a Fisk delegation, lead by Fisk President Hazel O’Leary, made a detailed effort to put the school’s situation in a better light, including noting last week’s decision by a Tennessee Appeals Court that the school could proceed with plans to raise $30 million in cash by selling half ownership in its treasured Alfred Stieglitz Collection of art and photographs. Word of the one-time infusion of cash apparently did not sway the commissioners who were interested in seeing evidence of long-term viability.

In the end, the agency reaffirmed its findings that Fisk has failed to “demonstrate compliance” with SACS’ “core requirements” regarding financial stability and “comprehensive standards” regarding the qualifications of its administrative and academic officers to head the school, its track record of financial stability and its exercise of “appropriate control” over all its financial resources. SACS also repeated its conclusion that Fisk had failed to document its compliance with federal program responsibilities under Title IV of the 1998 Higher Education Amendment.

In a statement released Tuesday after the SACS decision, Fisk President O’Leary said the case made at the Orlando meeting by the school’s leadership “was a strong factor in Fisk’s continuation of accreditation.”

The Fisk statement said the school “will address” SACS findings relating to financial stability, including timely completion of its fiscal year 2012 audit. The statement said that the school also planned to address SACS concerns about financial controls and that it planned to raise $8.4 million by June 30, 2012, to offset expenses. It also said it planned to enroll 275 new students in the fall of 2012.

Elsewhere, responses to the SACS decisions ran the gamut from candid acknowledgement that more work must and would be done to satisfy SACS to excitement over the agency’s decisions.

“Since all issues had not been resolved completely, we knew that a warning was a possibility,” says Fort Valley State University President Larry E. Rivers. “We had hoped, however, that our progress would have allowed for another year of monitoring at the most. Still, we respect SACS and will work to resolve the concerns fully,” says Rivers, whose school was among those placed on “warning” status.

Dr. Julianne Malveaux, president of Bennett College, which was placed on probation last June after several unexpected financial blows to the Greensboro, N.C.-based women’s college, says, “It was great for me to watch our campus pull together and work in concert. …We have been tried, tested and found true.” Malveaux says, as part of the college’s five-year report, it would have to “evidence continued compliance” with the financial stability principles of SACS.

Tennessee State University issued a statement quoting its president, Dr. Portia Shields, as hailing the SACS vote to remove the school from “warning” status and reaffirm its accreditation without conditions as a sign the school “is on the right track.”

Shields, who came to the school a few weeks after it was placed on “warning” status this time a year ago and has encountered criticism from some circles over her efforts to over haul it, says the school now has a “robust process” to address documenting compliance with SACS standards.

Texas Southern University President Dr. John Rudley hailed the SACS decision, saying, “The university across the board, administratively and academically, has worked hard to move the university forward to enhance its academic programming and strengthen its financial reporting systems. We see this accreditation as evidence that, yes, we’re moving in the right direction.”

Several years ago, Texas Southern had been the site of a massive collapse of its prior administrative leadership team, which became involved in illegal financial dealings with school funds.

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