DeSantis v. The DOE/SACSCOC
Another entry into the ongoing performative politics of Ron DeSantis.
The DeSantis administration sued the U.S. Education Department and top federal officials this week, claiming they are impeding efforts by Florida universities to switch accreditors — a significant priority for state Republicans.
Florida’s suit is challenging federal rules governing accreditation boards that Gov. Ron DeSantis contends wield too much power over schools and are circumventing policies and decisions from state leaders.
Accreditation agencies generally ensure higher education institutions meet standards of quality and are a necessary go-through for schools to ensure their students are eligible for billions of dollars in federal financial aid.
In Florida, Republicans for years have been at odds with the state’s accreditor, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, or SACS, over several disagreements leading to a landmark 2022 law triggering every state school to seek out a new accreditation board. More than half of Florida’s 40 state colleges and universities, as a result, are expected to change accreditors in the next two years through shifts that will send millions of dollars to a different agency.
I have written about this issue before (More on Florida’s Higher Ed “Reform”). I will note that my concluding line from that post remains true: “…the ‘reforms’ in question are not actually aimed at fixing a problem but are instead a mix of revenge politics and red meat to feed the base.”
I have no problem stating that the regional accreditation process* in the United States (as thumbnailed in the linked post above) is imperfect. As a university administrator (both as a department chair and as a dean) I have seen the annoying and the silly on the one hand, and the useful if not essential on the other in the various accreditation processes I have dealt with. I will note that regional accreditation (which is required for a school to receive federal dollars, to include students spending federal financial aid on their educations) is a central pillar of the way higher education functions in the US and, therefore, any attempt to change it ought to be approached with learned caution, not ideological recklessness. The fact that these processes are largely invisible to parents, students, and even faculty members is a testament to the fact that they function reasonably well, not the other way around.
I would pause here to note that despite its imperfections, higher education in the US has a record of substantial success and is a major US export. Despite ongoing attacks, the economic value of a college education remains clear.
At any rate, the way to address these imperfections is via expertise. Instead, the root of the current problem as it pertains to regional accreditation started with Betsy DeVos’ tenure at the Department of Education.
I will put it this way. As someone with academic expertise who focuses on how structures can shape human behavior, I have an empirically-based predisposition to accept the importance of rules and structures. Further, I am therefore sympathetic to experience-based rule-making. I would add to that an experienced reality wherein I am constantly reminded that even highly educated people (i.e., a bunch of people with doctorates) need rules (even when they frequently don’t think they do). Experience has further demonstrated that university administrators need rules and the occasional indepent outside oversight.
Like with businesses, universities will often seek to make decisions on short-sighted monetary reasons, or just from simple laziness (or even simple ignorance). Having an established set of independently derived standards to have to uphold is a necessity.
Now, critics of the accreditation process will state, with some cause, that the existing process does not adequately address poor performance. But the Trump administration’s approach under Secretary DeVos was to decrease regulatory control, not the opposite.
“We ended the stranglehold that a system designed when people traveled by horse and buggy continued to have on institutions,” DeVos said. “Accreditation has played a role in the bloat that has taken place in higher education administration, and it is time to right size bureaucracy and allow institutions to redirect their resources to students and teaching.”
DeVos argues the looser finalized regulations give schools more room for innovation instead of “one-size-fits-all solutions.” New accrediting agencies can more easily emerge, and schools have more flexibility in altering their programs, opening new branches and changing accreditors.(Soure)
Side note, I have to admit, when people speak in cliches (“horse and buggy,” “bloat,” “right size”, “one-size-fits-all”) it makes me wonder as to whether they know what they are talking about.
Regardless, one of the changes made was the ability of schools to seek accreditation outside of their region. That is what allowed the Florida law that is at the heart of the lawsuit in question. I will again say (as I did in the aforementioned post) that Florida’s new law requiring schools to change accreditors is simply a time and money-wasting headache that serves no legitimate educational purpose. It is purely a political move that makes colleges and universities dance for the amusement of certain political audiences.
Back to DeSantis and his fight with SACSCOC. The bottom line is that I simply do not believe he has a well-developed view of the best way to address this topic. Rather, I think he has mostly reacted via a combination of a fit of pique and the realization of the higher education bureaucrats as a great target for his ongoing base mobilization campaign.
The fit of pique is likely linked to SACSCOC’s criticism of DeSantis:
[SACSCOC Presidetnt Belle] Wheelan said she “has no idea” what prompted Florida lawmakers to lead the charge in villainizing SACS.
But Edward Conroy, a senior education adviser for the policy think tank New America, said he has a hunch that it started in 2021, when the University of Florida barred three of its professors from testifyingagainst the state in a lawsuit opposing restrictions on voting rights. In response, SACS launched an investigation of the university to determine if that decision was the result of undue political influence over a public institution.(Source)
The base mobilization part is pretty obvious, insofar as one of the few targets more appealing to certain conservatives these days than high ed would be a higher ed bureaucracy. Who wants to defend the Pointy-Headed Deep State? (Although to be clear, SACSCOC is a private, not public, entity).
Back to the Politico piece that I started with:
The Education Department, shortly after Florida passed its law, adopted a new policy requiring schools to demonstrate “reasonable cause” for switching accreditors and score federal approval before making the move in hopes of preventing “accreditation-shopping” to skirt accountability, according to the agency. The feds also are evaluating if the decision by schools to change accrediting agencies is “voluntary,” which could be key for Florida.
State officials, in turn, argue that the feds sent guidance to boards across the country “seeking to deter new accreditors from working with Florida.”
By the way, I expect that what the DOE is doing is, in fact, seeking to block Florida’s new requirements. And it may well be that they cannot do so (or that their current methods are flawed).
On Thursday, state university system Chancellor Ray Rodrigues slammed the Biden administration for its response to an accreditation request by the University of Central Florida to move from SACS to the Higher Learning Commission, one of the first such moves.
Rodrigues, a former Republican state senator, said USDOE took six months to respond to UCF and when the response finally came, the federal agency asked more questions of the school, leaving the university “trapped” and its accreditation up in the air.
So, I can understand Rodrigues’ frustration. I also have to make the inside baseball observation that going to HLC is the expected move, as it is the regional accreditor with the reputation of being the least stringent. The move, which is the rational one, does however underscore that the result of DeSantis’ attacks on SACSCOC is just to lower standards in his state.
And, of course, back to partisan politics:
State Republicans have a list of reasons for wanting to separate from SACS, including the accreditor flagging a possible conflict of interest in Florida State University’s search for a new president as well as opening a probe into the University of Florida’s decision to block three professors from testifying as experts in a legal case challenging a GOP-backed voting bill.
But Florida is also critical of how SACS handled the consideration of former Republican Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue as chancellor over the University System of Georgia two years ago. At the time, SACS sent a letter to the university system warning, according to Florida’s lawsuit, that Perdue’s candidacy threatened the entire university system’s accreditation and could result in “bad press,” “loss in enrollment and donations,” and loss of “access to federal financial aid” for students.
DeSantis, who is pushing to root out traces of “wokeness” in K-12 schools and colleges alike, suggested that Purdue would have faced less scrutiny if he were a Democrat.
“If the shoe were on the other foot in terms of party, do you honestly think that SACS would have issued that ultimatum?” DeSantis said Thursday. “No way, no way. So, they’re pursuing their agenda, and the question is whose agenda should ultimately govern.”
One can read Whelan’s letter about the Purdue process here. I have no particular opinion about Perdue, who has been Chancellor of the Georgia system for roughly a year. In general, I would prefer that persons in those types of positions have substantial academic experience, but also recognize that the jobs in question are inherently political. I will say that given Whelan’s letter, the concerns that SACSCOC was exhibiting were within the scope and mission. The need for an outside body to raise questions about governance is a legitimate one, and it brings to mind Auburn University’s probation due to improper behavior by some members of its Board of Trustees.
The bottom line for me is this: the fight between DeSantis and SACSCOC, and the ancillary fight between the state of Florida and the US Department of Education are examples to me more of performative grievance than of governance. Moreover, the broader context is from the rules put in place by the Trump administration that simply seem to me to make regulating higher ed more difficult rather than more efficacious. This is especially frustrating from my vantage point because the real damage that I have seen in higher ed in the last two decades has been the poor oversight of for-profit schools, and I don’t see any of this addressing those issues, but rather simply increasing the chances of more problematic behavior by actors who don’t want their activities scrutinized.
But hey, why worry about actual debates about real concerns when you can just gin up your base in advance of the primaries?
For further reading:
- The AP: DeSantis sues Biden administration over university accrediting system.
- Inside Higher Ed: The Political Trials of a Southern Accreditor.
- Inside Higher Ed: New Rules for Accreditors.
- Forbes: Madam Secretary DeVos, Tear Down These Regional Higher-Ed Accreditors. This is an opinion piece from a former Bush administration official (and former political scientist/university administrator). I provide it as an example of the general debate, I do find his solution, basically, federalism and total state-level control of higher ed, to be a bit stunning given the degree to which we have seen that approach lead to wildly different outcomes on the K-12 level.
*Let me note that regional accreditation is a process linked to the overall performance of a given college or university in conformity, ultimately, with federal law. This is distinct from specialized accreditation (like ABET, for example) that would provide certification of an academic department’s teaching of a specific discipline (like engineering or computer science). Some specialized accreditation also contains certification programs (such as for nursing).
Keep in mind that colleges and universities also have state-level bureaucracies they anwer to, such as the aptly named Alabama Commission on Higher Education (ACHE).