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St. Paul College Trustees Vote to Reopen Campus

Trustees of St. Paul’s College, stripped of its accreditation earlier this summer by the Southern Association of Colleges and School (SACS), voted Thursday to reopen the institution next month and offer a full 2012-2013 school year of classes and programs as it works to resolve SACS’ issues with the college.

The decision by the small, rural central Virginia college, boosted by a district federal court ruling Wednesday temporarily halting the effect of the SACS decision, came as officials at St. Paul’s insisted they want no fight with SACS, only an opportunity to demonstrate the institution has complied with the litany of SACS concerns that led the accrediting body to place St. Paul’s on probation two years ago.

“We will have class on campus this fall and next spring,” said an enthusiastic Dr. Claud Flythe, interim president and chief executive officer of St. Paul’s, a college founded in the 1800s by the Episcopal Church.

“We’ve been inundated with calls,” he said, referring to the initial response to news of the trustees’ decision. “The phone’s been ringing all day,” Flythe said in a telephone interview late Thursday.

Flythe said school officials plan to meet again today to devise a school calendar that will reflect a later than usual start of the school year and still comply with various attendance goals and accommodate holiday breaks during the school year.

In a practical sense, the two-page court decree Wednesday by Judge Charles A. Pannell Jr. of the United States Court for the Northern District of Georgia, Atlanta Division, means St. Paul’s remains accredited, although still on probation with SACS. The decree means St. Paul’s “is and remains eligible to participate” in receiving federal and state education funds, a source of income essential to tuition driven institutions. 

The injunction against enforcement of the SACS decision governs the relationship between the accrediting agency and the college until the court can hear St. Paul’s arguments for permanent relief or the agency and institution settle their differences, whichever comes first. The court did not set a date for hearing the merits of St. Paul’s complaint.

“St. Paul’s respects and wants to be a member of SACS,” said Flythe, a veteran higher education administrator who spent most of his career at Virginia State University.

“All we needed was time,” he said, referring to efforts by the college in recent months to address SACS’s ongoing concerns about the institution’s finances, the academic quality of its faculty and St. Paul’s institutional effectiveness.  

In a hail Mary run at avoiding losing its accreditation this year, St. Paul’s interim leadership launched an ambitious campaign last November to strengthen the tiny school’s finances and tenured faculty roster. By June, it raised nearly $5 million in cash and pledges of financial support and signed deals with several terminal degree academicians who, like the donors, said they were on board to fulfill their commitments to the college, if it got a clear bill of health from SACS.

It was just a few weeks before the June SACS meeting that all the parts came together for St. Paul’s but too late for the wheels of the SACS bureaucracy to carefully churn through the college’s latest documents in time for an educated SACS vote in June. Absent the preliminary reviews needed before the formal SACS meeting, the board’s Commission on Colleges voted on what was last before it and decided the college was still not in compliance.

A SACS appeals board reaffirmed the June decision at a special hearing earlier this month, a ruling that spurred the college’s appeal to the federal court for temporary relief. The court intervention gives St. Paul’s access to millions of dollars it may not have received without accreditation.

St. Paul’s is hoping its case for reaffirmation of its accreditation will be considered by the SACS Commission on Colleges at its December meeting. Meanwhile, Flythe said he and his colleagues were busy trying to reaffirm commitments made this past winter and spring in an effort to determine whether all who came to the institution’s rescue are still on board.

Flythe said it was too early to estimate the number of students likely to return this fall, once a final schedule is set. That unknown aside, he said confidently, “We’re full bore ahead.”

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