As an African-American woman with more than 40 years of experience in higher education, Dr. Belle S. Wheelan has certainly become used to breaking barriers and shattering glass ceilings.
After a successful career as a community college professor and administrator, and almost four years as Virginia secretary of education in Gov. Mark Warner’s administration, Wheelan made history yet again. In 2005, she was named the first African-American, first woman and first former community college president to take the helm of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) Commission on Colleges (COC), a regional organization founded in 1895 that accredits more than 13,000 educational organizations throughout the South.
In almost 10 years as president of SACSCOC, Wheelan has been the public face of the agency, helping its 805 institutions understand that accreditation is a continual process and something that they need not fear.
“I keep telling people, ‘We are not here to get you,’” Wheelan says, sitting behind a desk in her spacious office at the SACS headquarters in a suburb outside of Atlanta. “This is a continuous improvement process. And if you listen to what we say and follow the examples we give you, you won’t have any problems with us.”
That kind of tough but hands-on approach has won over college leaders, who have at times been somewhat fearful of the accreditation process or even at odds with some of SACS’ rules and guidelines.
President Michael J. Sorrell of Paul Quinn College, which lost its accreditation from SACS in 2009 and was forced to gain its accreditation through the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools, says he considers Wheelan a mentor and says that he has personally benefited from her sage advice and counsel.
“Given Paul Quinn’s relationship with SACS during the first two years of my presidency, people are always surprised when they hear me praise Belle Wheelan. What those people fail to realize is that Belle was among the first people to believe in my leadership and presidential potential,” says Sorrell, who is in the process of reapplying for membership.
“During our darkest hour when Paul Quinn had few friends and many critics, it was Belle who made it clear that our approach was sound and, if given time, would be successful. Her words helped people differentiate between SACS’ process that evaluated Paul Quinn’s past and our institution’s future. Belle was always honest with me, even when it hurt. But she never once failed to be fair, and for that, I will always be thankful.”
If Paul Quinn is successful in its efforts to rejoin SACS, the school’s history is no longer relevant as far as Wheelan is concerned. “We don’t care what happened five years ago,” she says. “We want to know where you are today and are you in compliance.”
As a former college president who ran two institutions, Northern Virginia Community College — the second largest multicampus community college in the country — and Central Virginia Community College in Lynchburg, Virginia, Wheelan has unique insight on the myriad challenges that higher education faces, particularly in an era of fiscal cutbacks and declining student enrollment.
And yet, her administration has helped to streamline the accreditation process, as she’s barnstormed the region, schooling politicians and member institutions alike about the need to be in compliance with the organization’s core standards.
“I think some of the fear has dissipated over the 10 years,” she says of the accreditation process. “I go to bat for the institutions. They understand we work for them. We are a service provider. I think there is a healthy respect, but I don’t think the fear is there in the same way it was when I started working on accreditation many years ago.”
Rising through the ranks
Wheelan’s foray into academia happened almost fortuitously. The daughter of a special education teacher, she promised herself that she would not become a teacher like her mother, because there was simply “too much paperwork” involved.
In fact, Wheelan had aspirations of becoming a child psychologist and enrolled in a doctoral program at Louisiana State University, but was forced to terminate her studies (after earning her master’s degree in 1974) because her mother took ill.
Born in Chicago, but a lifelong Texan, Wheelan realized that, with her degree, she could teach at the community college level. She became one of the first African-American women hired at San Antonio College, where she taught psychology for 10 years. But after helping to put her husband through a master’s degree program and then law school, Wheelan decided while still working at San Antonio College that she needed to resume her education. She went back to school to earn a doctorate.
Wheelan enrolled in the Community College Leadership Program at The University of Texas at Austin and made the 160-mile trek roundtrip by car until she finished the program in 23 months. From there, she set her sights on college administration work and became director of developmental education at San Antonio College.
After she and her husband divorced, Wheelan decided that she wanted to head north and settle in the Washington, D.C. area. In 1976, she visited the area for the bicentennial festivities; she says she was surprised by what she saw.
“I had never seen so many educated Black folks in one place in my life,” Wheelan says with a laugh. “And I said, ‘If I ever move, I’m moving to Chocolate City.’”
In 1987, she was hired as dean of students at Thomas Nelson Community College in Hampton, Virginia, and began to work her way up the East Coast corridor. Wheelan stayed at Thomas Nelson for two years before becoming provost of the Portsmouth Campus of Tidewater Community College, where she actively began to work on issues relating to accreditation.
In 1992, Wheelan was tapped to lead Central Virginia Community College. She stayed for six years until she secured the presidency at Northern Virginia Community College, which operates several campuses in counties right outside of the District of Columbia.
Though the institution was much larger than any place Wheelan had ever worked before, with nearly 60,000 students, the day-to-day responsibilities were not that much different from what she had grown accustomed to in her previous administrative positions.
“The challenges, interestingly enough, were the same,” she says. “You still deal with budgets. You still have to make sure that you have an appropriate curriculum for the community you are serving.”
In her three years as chief executive officer at Northern Virginia Community College, she became so well known across the state that newly elected governor Warner offered her a job as his secretary of education in 2001.
“I had planned to retire from Northern Virginia and would still be there today if Mark Warner had not called and said, ‘Belle, would you consider taking a $45,000 pay cut and driving 100 miles every day to be my secretary of education?’” Wheelan says.
While personally gratifying, the job came with its own set of challenges: namely that no one reported directly to her and she did not have any real power to implement change.
“I went from being in charge of an institution, to being in charge of nothing,” says Wheelan. “I had no carrot to hold out to them. It was the power of influence and I had to get used to that because I was used to calling the shots. It was humbling.”
Warner, who is now the senior U.S. senator from Virginia, made education a central part of his platform while he was governor and launched a campaign to improve high schools while forging partnerships with the business community. Wheelan was considered a trusted adviser.
“Belle’s energy and willingness to build bridges between the worlds of business and education impressed me greatly,” he said at the time of her appointment. “She has taken Northern Virginia by storm over the past three years with her enthusiasm, energy and ability to get the job done.”
In a recent interview with Diverse, Warner says that he tapped Wheelan to be his secretary of education because “she brought enormous energy and commitment to the students” during her tenure as president of Northern Virginia Community College.
He says that Wheelan’s appointment was historic, in that it was the first time that a community college educator had been chosen as Virginia’s secretary of education.
“In that job, she brought her special energy, drive, get-it-done kind of spirit to a whole series of education reforms both in higher education and K-12,” says Warner. “Many times Belle might have been the first woman, or first African-American in the room. She’s never allowed that to hold her back in any way.”
In the waning months of Warner’s administration (Virginia governors are currently prohibited by law from serving consecutive terms, although that is expected to change in 2017), Wheelan was nominated and selected to lead SACSCOC.
With 49 employees, the organization depends on the 4,000 or so peer reviewers who volunteer to evaluate member institutions.
“I don’t get a vote and none of my staff gets a vote,” she says. “It is peers who make the decision about the status of the institutions.”
During her tenure, eight institutions have been dropped from membership, a process that Wheelan says occurs over a lengthy period of time but is nonetheless painful.
“We don’t just drop an institution for membership. This is a process of continuous improvement, so we try to give institutions a chance to improve,” she says. “If you don’t improve, you’re not playing by our rules, so you don’t want to be in our game, so goodbye. But we don’t just drop institutions lightly.”
For those colleges and universities who are placed on probation or issued a warning because they are out of compliance with one or more standards, SACS gives them time — usually between two and four years — to make steady improvements.
“Some of them don’t listen to us,” Wheelan says. “They don’t take our advice and when you don’t do it, you’re out there on your own, and good luck.”
In the past, most institutions lost membership because of their finances. Given the recent economic recession, institutions have not been penalized for their lack of resources, she says, but instead have been evaluated on how they spent the money they have.
The single mother of a 30-year-old son, Wheelan has been busy educating college and university boards about SACS expectations and helping them understand how “their own behavior can get the institution in trouble with us because of the standards we have.”
She has battled with governors and state legislators who have become too involved in the educational process and remains an active participant in CRAC (Council of Regional Accrediting Commissions), which is made up of her counterparts from the other agencies that meet regularly to discuss common standards.
Under her leadership, Wheelan has made the accreditation process more “user friendly,” says Dr. Edward L. Schrader, president of Brenau University in Gainesville, Georgia.
“She and the staff are there for consultation, not just adjudication,” says Schrader, who is also a member of the SACSCOC Board of Trustees and has known and worked with Wheelan for many years. “She is not an ivory tower isolationist, but a down-to-earth regular person who happens to be very educated but is also very approachable.”
In recent years, SACS implemented a Quality Enhancement Plan that directly correlates to student learning. Faculty members have, in turn, been able to help students understand the importance of assessment and whether they are hitting academic benchmarks.
Still, with more than 74 percent of the nation’s historically Black colleges and universities claiming membership with SACS, Wheelan says she is concerned about the current state of HBCUs in general and has been closely monitoring the individual situation at several institutions, including South Carolina State University.
With the transition in presidential leadership over the past few years and an aging population of Black college presidents, Wheelan says that she worries that HBCUs “don’t have as many [candidates] in the pipeline that we’ve prepared to take their place.
“HBCUs, I think are still relevant and will always be relevant,” she says. “Their mission has been to educate students who have not been as academically prepared in many instances, but they also have a lot of high-performing students from all over. They are doing research just like the big boys, but the resources to support them are not nearly as deep. Their endowments are not [as] deep as some of the larger institutions in which they’re competing.”
On the road
At 63, Wheelan spends much of her time on the road and delights in the opportunity to see students active on their campuses and engaged in the learning process.
“It reminds me of why I’m pushing paper and why I’m putting up with legislators and everything else,” she says.
With a three-year rolling contract, Wheelan is unsure of what she will do when she eventually leaves SACSCOC. What she knows for certain, however, is that she plans to continue to be a mentor to other young people.
“I was 30 years old before I met a Black woman with a Ph.D. and I said I never wanted another generation of young women to have to say that, and so I’ve been very visible in my career,” she says.
Being awarded the Dr. John Hope Franklin Award by Diverse, she says, is indeed a special honor.
“Knowing the significance of raising the awareness and contributions that African-Americans have made,” she says, “and to have been an African-American, who by some people’s standards has made contributions, and to be recognized for it, feels good.”