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Fisk, FAMU Accreditation Status Under Review in the Week Ahead


Dr. Larry Earvin and the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission will determine where Fisk and Florida A&M stand in their bids to get clean bills of health in terms of accreditation.Dr. Larry Earvin and the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission will determine where Fisk and Florida A&M stand in their bids to get clean bills of health in terms of accreditation.

When the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC) gathers for its winter meeting starting Thursday in Atlanta, two items on its full agenda are likely to draw the most attention — deliberations and decisions with significant impact on Fisk and Florida A&M universities.

In the case of Fisk, one of the nation’s so-called “Black Ivy League” institutions that has been on probation or warning status for nearly four years, SACS will vote on whether to give the university a clean bill of health with no conditions or strip Fisk of its accreditation, an action that could hasten its demise.

FAMU, meanwhile, is hoping to have the “warning” status it was dealt nearly a year ago removed. That would be an acknowledgement that the university has successfully addressed a list of SACSCOC compliance concerns largely stemming from the fall 2011 death of a FAMU band member at the hands of fellow students participating in a violent hazing exercise.

At stake is millions of dollars in federal funds, as both tuition-driven institutions rely heavily on students being able to access federal grant and loan funds to pay their tuitions. The federal government does not provide funds to unaccredited institutions.

“All eyes are on this,” said Johnny C. Taylor Jr., president and chief executive officer of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, the Washington-based nonprofit that has long been an advocate for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and raised millions of dollars to fund student education.

Taylor, echoing advocacy colleagues, described the pending SACSCOC decisions as “the most important thing facing them” in a reference to the two institutions.

Fisk, Nashville’s oldest institution of higher education and a one-time icon of Black intellectual thought, has faced hard financial and enrollment times for more than a decade.

In the post-segregation era, Fisk, a private liberal arts institution, has lost many of the best and brightest college prospects to historically White institutions that have been bidding aggressively for the same students. At the same time, many funders of the university have gone elsewhere, redirecting what sums they gave.

FAMU, meanwhile, is the nation’s largest HBCU with some 10,000 students. It is also the only public HBCU in Florida.

While enrollment numbers at FAMU have been hit by the inability of an increasing number of students to meet steadily rising academic admission standards and tighter federal grant and loan criteria, FAMU, like most of the nation’s public institutions, has been suffering from relentless state allocation cuts precipitated by the nation’s economic nosedive and fueled by successful efforts of some political leaders to change state funding practices.

The public fallout from the hazing death of the student band member, a 26-year-old drum major, only worsened FAMU’s problems.

Of the two institutions facing SACSCOC judgment at the upcoming December meeting, Fisk has no time left to protect its standing in the organization, the principal accrediting agency for colleges and universities across the South. Fisk has exhausted its four years ― two on warning status and two on probation ― to satisfy the 77-member higher education peer group board that it complies with minimum standards for accreditation.

FAMU could be considered in noncompliance and still have another year to meet the standards.

Regardless, administrators at both universities are hoping the time and attention they and their staffs have placed all year on SACSCOC’s concerns will yield a favorable vote.

At Fisk, recently appointed President Dr. H. James Williams has taken a hands-on role with key university staffers since starting his job in February. A lawyer with an MBA and a degree in accounting, Williams said in a recent interview that the university has put new efforts and energy into addressing the concerns of SACSCOC.

“In the final analysis, what SACSCOC wants us to show is we are financially viable,” Williams said, when asked about the university’s work since December a year ago when it was given its final chance to get its house in order. “We have shown we are, in fact, financially viable.”

Williams said that Fisk has implemented new budget and internal audit procedures and has worked to balance its budget and show positive financial and enrollment projections for the future. The steps don’t guarantee a clean bill of health, he acknowledged. They do show that the university understands SACSCOC is serious and that it is responding accordingly, he said.

“We’re going to be guardedly optimistic,” Williams said of Fisk’s prospects. “We feel confident.”

FAMU hopes it has taken the steps needed to be removed from “warning” status this year, interim FAMU President Larry Robinson said in a recent interview. He recapped a series of steps the university has taken to improve the environment and safety of the campus, including a shopping list of well-publicized moves aimed at limiting, if not eliminating, any and all kinds of hazing by any organization associated with the institution.

New staffers have been hired to enforce new rules regarding campus conduct, with special attention focused on the university band and campus organizations with an eye toward ending the sanctions.

Dr. Lezli Baskerville, president and chief executive officer of the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education (NAFEOE), the Washington-based trade association of HBCU presidents, shared the sentiments of advocates on the national level in asserting that the SACSCOC actions are being watched closely because of the “ramifications” of its actions for other colleges and universities.

“My sense is that they (Fisk and FAMU) have done a lot to address SACSCOC’s concerns,” said Baskerville. “They have taken great strides to address them. Hopefully they will come out intact.”

Based on past procedures, which SACSCOC is expected to follow at its December meeting, Fisk will be given a private audience of about an hour with a subcommittee of the SACSCOC board. At that meeting, Williams and the team with him (the Fisk board chairman and other top university officers) will be allowed to make a final case for removing Fisk from probation and clearing its affirmation.

The review committee will make a recommendation to the SACSCOC executive committee. The executive can accept the review committee report and send it to the full board with its endorsement or write its own recommendation to the full 77-member board. The full board’s vote will decide the status of Fisk, with a public announcement to follow.

“In recent years, SACS has developed and implemented a review process,”’ said Dr. Larry Earvin, president of SACSCOC and Houston-Tillotson College in Texas. “In that light, it’s reasonable for all schools to meet that expectation,” he said, offering no clues of where the board’s current thinking might be on the Fisk and FAMU issues.

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