Ten HBCUs Get Accreditation Reaffirmed, Two Placed on Warning Status

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by Reginald Stuart

Ten HBCUs across the South had their accreditation reaffirmed Tuesday for another 10 years by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) Commission on Colleges, the principal accreditation group for colleges across the region.

Two major colleges—Fisk University and Tennessee State University, both in Tennessee—were placed on “warning” status, a position that leaves their accreditation intact pending resolution of issues SACS raised during their review process. Warning is one step short of probation, a rating that could lead to a school losing accreditation.

Stillman College, a small private historically Black school in Alabama, was denied reaffirmation.

The SACS decisions were announced in Louisville late Tuesday as the Commission completed four days of meetings built around its annual convention.

The Commission placed its stamp of approval on Alabama State, Bethune Cookman, Grambling, North Carolina A&T, Prairie View, South Carolina State, Southern University-Baton Rouge, Xavier of New Orleans, Virginia Union and Winston Salem State University in North Carolina.

“Accreditation indicates that S.C. State has met exemplary standards of quality, capacity and effectiveness,” said  S.C. State University President George Cooper, echoing the sentiments of presidents of other schools that won SACS endorsements without conditions. Cooper characterized a SACS endorsement as “the ultimate process that assesses a university’s success in the fulfillment of its mission and continual efforts to enhance the overall academic collegial experience.”

Norman C. Francis, president of Xavier, said the SACS endorsement “is a great victory for us all and we could not have hoped for a better outcome.” Francis said the entire Xavier community—faculty, staff, students, administrators and trustees—worked at various times over the past two years on drafting the school’s application for reaffirmation, adding that “the accreditation required extensive assessment, reporting, documentation, scheduling, interviewing, logistics and hospitality.”

Harold Martin, president of North Carolina A&T University, characterized the SACS endorsement as  “a culmination of excellent planning” by the school’s SACS Steering Committee, the President’s Cabinet, faculty, staff and students.

Schools seek accreditation once every 10 years. SACS has more than 80 standards and requirements that a school must meet to have their accreditation “reaffirmed” or continued. Most schools spend several years researching and documenting how they are meeting the organization’s standards and requirements.

Endorsement by SACS is used by the federal government to decide what colleges can participate in federal student aid programs, a key for most tuition-driven schools like HBCUs. Many private funders also rely on a school’s ratings by national and regional academic rating agencies like SACS to determine which school they will support.

The SACS Commission on Colleges took actions on dozens of other proposals from schools and is set to publish all results in a few days. Several had specific graduate-level programs approved, while others got less encouraging news.

Tennessee State, in Nashville, learned it was not getting a clean bill of health from SACS due to numerous questions about its ability to clearly delineate the effectiveness of some of its efforts in planning, student assessment and learning outcomes. That caused the agency to place the popular school on “warning” status for one year.

The decision gives Tennessee State time to address several questions about these “core requirements,” those that apply to the whole institution, and “comprehensive standards,” those that measure specific departments or programs. The SACS decision does not affect Tennessee State’s accreditation during the one-year “warning” status.

Tennessee State President Melvin N. Johnson said the school has already addressed many of the SACS issues since the SACS accreditation team visited its campus earlier this year. He said the 12-month period will give TSU “an excellent opportunity to provide additional documentation demonstrating a fully integrated institutional effectiveness model that includes assessment and evaluation processes that link to our mission and goals.”

Fisk, meanwhile, failed for a second time in 12 months to win a clean endorsement from the SACS commission for the same reasons the agency initially refused last December to give Fisk an unconditional reaffirmation—Fisk’s finances.

The SACS Commission gave Fisk until 1 April to file additional information about its financial resources and stability. Meanwhile, Fisk retains its accreditation with an asterisk. Failure to satisfy SACS when it reviews the school’s updated report next spring could result in Fisk being placed on “probation.” The SACS panel’s mid-year meeting, at which it will again review its ruling on Fisk, is set for June.

Fisk has told a Tennessee court judge it is essentially broke. It has been trying to sell part ownership in its valuable art collection to raise badly needed funds. Using money from the ownership sale has been key to Fisk’s short- and long-term solvency plans and its accreditation bid.

“Fisk’s work to improve financial stability is the key to removing the SACS warning,” said a Fisk statement quoting Fisk President Hazel R. O’Leary. “The path to financial stability includes three elements: a successful outcome with each annual fundraising effort; increasing Fisk’s net assets base, which requires that Fisk increase its endowment; and a clean financial audit. This is why the board-approved sharing agreement with the Crystal Bridges Museum of Art for undivided half-interest in the Stieglitz Collection in exchange for $30 million is vital to Fisk’s future.”  

Fisk envisions taking possession of all the proceeds from the proposed sharing agreement to revive its fortunes. Judge Ellen Hobbs Lyle ruled last month that the sale could proceed as long as $20 million of the money was put in an independently managed endowment whose income could only be used to support maintenance and exhibition of the art collection in Nashville. Fisk has expressed outrage over the ruling.

Fisk announced last week it would appeal that ruling, asserting the school needs all the money. The envisioned proceeds from the sale are a crucial part of the school’s financial plan filed with SACS.  

Aside from its questions about Fisk’s financial resources and financial stability, SACS maintains Fisk remains in good standing.

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