When a college locks horns with a regional higher education accrediting agency, the agency historically has usually prevailed. Officials at tiny Saint Paul’s College hope to be one of those exceptions next week when they face the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) in an accreditation battle that could determine the institution’s fate.
On Monday, Saint Paul’s Interim President, Dr. Claud Flythe, is expected to lead a delegation of six university administrators at a special SACS hearing at which Saint Paul’s officials will argue for reversal of a June decision by the SACS Commission on Colleges to strip the Lawrenceville, Va., college of its accreditation.
SACS took the action against Saint Paul’s after determining the college had failed during a two-year probation period to sufficiently address a number of questions the agency had regarding the financial and academic viability of Saint Paul’s.
Although Saint Paul’s raised millions of dollars in the six months prior to the June SACS meeting and addressed other concerns raised by the agency, college officials contend the home-stretch good news, produced by an interim president, was not considered by SACS at the June meeting, a decision Saint Paul’s officials say means that the Commission on Colleges did not follow its own rules of procedure or that its action was arbitrary and unreasonable.
“If you look at the facts, we’re entitled to accreditation now,” said attorney Ashley Taylor Jr., the Richmond, Va., legal counsel retained by the college to pursue saving its SACS status and to explore other options ranging from merging to closing. “We’re fairly bullish” on the college’s prospects, Taylor said in a recent telephone interview as he and Flythe prepared for Monday’s hearing.
Taylor said the school had addressed SACS’s concerns regarding finances, terminal faculty ranks and improving its board. It simply had presented its documents in time for its updated status report to be considered by the agency at its June meting. Knowing the information was available, Taylor said SACS had the discretion to extend the probation status for a third year, allowing time for the new information to be considered at the December SACS meeting.
“They took a snapshot and it was an evolving picture,” Taylor said of what by June was a dated body of facts.
Between November 2011 and June 2012, then interim president Eddie N. Moore Jr. had marshaled a fundraising campaign that brought in more than $4.7 million and the college has recruited addition terminal degree faculty who had committed to join the institution’s staff, if SACS removed the college from probation and gave it a clean bill of reaffirmation. The institution had also drawn what Taylor and Flythe called a “conservative” budget based on enrolling approximately 400 students.
The SACS decision in June derailed nearly everything, they said.
Fundraising has slowed significantly, said Flythe, a Virginia higher education veteran who joined the college’s administration early this year as part of Moore’s team. All but Saint Paul’s adult education classes have been canceled for the fall, Flythe said. Its frugal budget has been significantly reworked as now there are only about 60 staffers still working at the school attending to essential duties to keep the facility’s doors open during its ordeal.
“Our focus is placed on this appeal,” Flythe said. “However, we are looking at all options,” he added, reaffirming earlier reports the college was exploring suing SACS if it loses its arguments Monday, merging or working another institution. “We (the Saint Paul’s community) are united as one voice,” Flythe said, adding that some academic and support staffers have volunteered to come back to work and some students still want to attend classes at the college.
In the South, where SACS is the principal accrediting agency for about 800 institutions, few have done battle with the agency in recent decades in challenging loss of accreditation/membership in the organization. In the instances that have reached that point, only one has prevailed in challenging a loss of SACS accreditation.
Edward Waters College, a small Historically Black College in Florida, lost its membership/accreditation with SACS in 2004. The college sued SACS over the matter. The battle was resolved in 2006 with a settlement that resulted in the college being readmitted to SACS.