Almost exactly a year ago, I was flipping through the Washington Post over morning coffee when this headline caught my eye: “Southeastern University’s Accreditation At Risk”. I was intrigued. Universities don’t lose accreditation very often, particularly those in the traditional public and non-profit sector. Near the end of the article came this sentence:
Accreditors noted that they had given considerable latitude to Southeastern because of its mission to educate a diverse and underserved student population but that the same problems had persisted for 30 years.
The accreditor had lowered their standards for Southeastern because it enrolled diverse and underserved students? Really? That sounded pretty terrible, so I wrote a blog post saying so. One commenter (sadly, lost in blog platform transition, so I’m paraphrasing) responded by saying no, no, of course we did no such thing, and it was ridiculous and insulting that I would even suggest otherwise. So I decided to look into it further, and ended up spending some time on the Southeastern campus, poring through accreditation documents, interviewing current and former students and faculty, and so on. The result was a to-be-published book chapter plus a feature in the new issue of Washington Monthly, which you can read here. It’s titled “Asleep at the Seal: Just How Bad Does a College Have to Be to Lose Accreditation?”
Pretty bad, as it turns out. The article goes into the particulars–perilous finances, a 14 percent graduation rate, 0 percent pass rates on licensure exams, declining enrollment, student loan defaults, unpaid multi-million dollar federal fines, six full-time faculty (one of whom was the registrar) overseeing 30 academic programs (not courses–programs) and so on. Meanwhile, the thing about lowering standards? That turns out to be true. In correspondence with the university, the accreditor (Middle States) wrote:
“Ever since Southeastern University’s initial accreditation … in 1977, the Commission has recognized the University’s mission of serving diverse and underserved student populations. It is largely as a consequence of this recognition that the Commission has been so forbearing in its actions to date.”
A few weeks ago I was giving a speech at a conference of accreditors and I read that quote, verbatim. Afterward, during audience Q&A, a gentleman who had worked at Middle States for a number of years took the microphone and said, in so many words, no, no, of course we did no such thing, and it was ridiculous and insulting that I would even suggest otherwise. So I read the quote again. If there are alternate interpretations I would be glad to hear them.
Southeastern finally lost accreditation and shut its doors in August 2009. In researching the article I wanted to learn more about the historical back-and-forth with Middle States. Perhaps those documents would reveal some hitherto-unrevealed interpretation of the word “forbearing”! I couldn’t ask Southeastern for the documents, because it didn’t exist anymore. So I asked Middle States, which said I couldn’t see the documents because…wait for it…Southeastern didn’t exist any more. Middle States only publishes documents about accredited colleges and universities, you see, and even then they only make their correspondence available, not the reports and responses that colleges send in return. Now that Southeastern is kaput, the whole sorry history is under lock and key (or through a shredder, who knows.) I replied by saying that I understood (albeit don’t agree with) the notion of concealing accreditation documents about colleges that actually exist, but whose interest was being served by hiding all the information now? I received no reply. Keep this in mind next time you’re told that the accreditation process is “transparent.”