UofSC formal review imminent, several options on the table for accreditation agency

UofSC formal review imminent, several options on the table for accreditation agency

COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - A formal review of the University of South Carolina’s handling of its most recent presidential search will be the subject of its accreditor’s December meeting.

The announcement of a formal review came in the form of a letter addressed to President Bob Caslen on Oct. 2 from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, or SACS, which is the accreditation agency that oversees the university.

In it, it describes “evidence of a significant accreditation-related issue” it discovered within information and documents turned over by a complainant this summer along with what was supplied by the university in its own defense.

The board was notified by a complainant earlier this summer alleging Gov. Henry McMaster worked closely with the Board of Trustees to make Caslen president. If true, it is a violation of SACS standards, which prohibit governing bodies from allowing external influences into the decision making process.

According to SACS, upon completion of a formal review, it has five options to consider:

  1. It can find all is well — meaning no penalties or sanctions will be put in place and the review is closed.
  2. It can “monitor” the school to make sure it continues to be in compliance with SACS standards
  3. Place the school on warning
  4. Place the school on probation
  5. Drop accreditation

The likelihood of UofSC losing its accreditation is low, but sanctions in the form of a warning or probation remain possibilities. A warning, the less severe of the two, can be imposed if the school doesn’t make timely and significant corrections to a non-compliance issue. The maximum amount of time a school can be on warning is two years.

Probation is a more serious sanction than a warning and can be put in place as the last step before a school’s accreditation is dropped. SACS can put a school on probation for many of the same reasons a school can be on a warning. A university can be put on probation without being put on warning.

Bethany Bell, an associate professor at the university, fears any kind of sanction will negatively impact the university’s reputation and hurt its ability to attract and retain high-quality faculty.

“This won’t go away once the sanction is cleared up because faculty look at these things when they decide where to look for jobs,” she said. “That’s the other thing. We might get faculty, but maybe we’re not getting the best recruits because maybe the best decided they didn’t even want to apply here.”

She also fears the impact any kind of sanction may have on the hiring of a new provost, something she said has been outlined as a top priority by leadership.

“I already thought it was going to be hard to find a provost who would want to come to campus given everything that is going on,” she said. “I think now it makes the provost search committee’s job a thousand times harder because, even if it’s just a warning and that’s wrapped up before the interviews started for the provost position, there’s still that stigma in the background.”

This summer, when it became clear Caslen was a front-runner for the position, many faculty members and students cried foul about the possibility of the school’s accreditation being challenged. Three months later, while Bell does not think the university will lose its accreditation, she hopes moving forward trustees and lawmakers will listen to faculty.

“Faculty knew it could easily rise to this level,” Bell said. “The fact that it has hopefully moving forward, the board of trustees will actually listen to faculty concerns because we are intimately involved in everything that goes into the running of this university than the trustees are.”

The university has until Nov. 4 to supply the accreditation agency with any other information or documentation it deems necessary.

The formal review will take place in December, with President Caslen expected to be made aware of the outcome within two weeks of the meeting.

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