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When the News of Demise Is Greatly Exaggerated

Recently, as part of their bi-annual announcement of accreditation actions, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC) indicated that Southern University in Baton Rouge was placed on warning for not fully meeting the association’s standards. Each year a wide range of schools receive a similar notice, but in this case local media seemed to employ a “Chicken Little” strategy to report this news.

Most people don’t understand accreditation standards; they just know it is something you have to have to operate. But on occasions when an institution falls short, it is given time to correct the deficiencies, which the vast majority do. Southern received a warning, the lowest level of action. In short, it is an action that notifies an institution that they should pay special attention to an area or areas that are not meeting the standards.

The next level of sanction is probation. At this level, if the issues cited are not addressed, the institution is in jeopardy of losing accreditation, the harshest level of sanction. An institution can spend up to 2 years on probation before accreditation is revoked, and practically speaking, an institution losing accreditation is still a very rare occurrence.

So a headline by The Advocate, “Southern University warned it could lose accreditation needed to issue degrees, receive federal grants,” for the lowest level of action, unfairly damages the institution’s reputation.

While the story on this situation does indicate that a warning is the lightest sanction, the boldest wording, the headline, talks about losing accreditation. Simultaneously, Baton Rouge television station WAFB was even more inflammatory with its headline, “Southern University slammed with warning from accrediting agency.” The print story’s first paragraph also suggests that loss of accreditation is a possibility.

Wow. “Lose accreditation” and “slammed with warning,” convey to the average reader that this is very serious, even at a warning stage. This would suggest that a school that ends up on probation would see headlines that are apocalyptic. But in the same state, under the same accrediting agency, two schools in the past few years have been on probation, and their media treatment was very different.

In 2014, one Louisiana institution was placed on probation after 2 years on warning. Despite being under warning then probation (meaning the sanctions intensified), the article never suggested that the accreditation was in any way in jeopardy. A follow up article in 2015 indicated that probation was extended even though the college had resolved most of the issues. In both cases, the narrative was that the college was working to resolve deficiencies, and never was the possibility of losing accreditation mentioned.

Last year, another Louisiana institution was placed on probation (again, stronger than warning) for a year. Again, nowhere in the article is the possible loss of accreditation mentioned. In fact, a representative from the accrediting agency was quoted saying, “The whole point of this is to give them time to fix things, we don’t want to remove them from membership. That’s not our goal. Our goal is to help them stay within the accrediting standards.”

For some, the sanction is time to fix things. For others, it means the end is near.

To be fair, the other stories were done by two different papers, and maybe The Advocate and WAFB would use the same language for any school. But implying that the action taken against the historically Black University is more serious than actions taken against other schools (which were in actuality more serious) is unfair and shows a negative media bias.

Southern’s accreditation is less in jeopardy than the other Louisiana universities which received harsher sanctions. News reports should accurately reflect that fact. There are great journalists at these and other outlets all across the nation, and we just want them to see this as a blind spot in their reporting and an area for improvement. HBCUs want and need great relationships with the media; they can help tell our story. The story, however, has to be fair.

HBCU alums and supporters have a role to play by vigorously pushing back on these narratives. In this particular case, the media outlets should have been bombarded with calls and letters telling them their coverage was biased and unfair. Unfortunately, that did not happen.

The lesson here is that advocacy is more that hollering and screaming at the shiny objects. Nuanced attacks against HBCUs go unchallenged all the time and those, in the end, can be much more damaging over time. “Stay Woke” is a popular call to action these days but too often just refers to the injustices that are easily seen.

My advice? Don’t sleep on attacks like this.

Dr. Walter M. Kimbrough is president of Dillard University.

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