Accrediting organization: Problems at UNC-CH 'a big deal'

Posted June 11, 2015 5:44 a.m. EDT
Updated June 11, 2015 10:23 p.m. EDT

— The organization that accredits the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill put the school on 12-month probation Thursday. The university does not lose accreditation, according to Chancellor Carol Folt, but it has 12 months to demonstrate that recent academic reforms are working.

University officials asked the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACS) in January to find them in compliance with various accreditation standards, and, while the group praised the administration of Chancellor Carol Folt and the changes the university has implemented in recent years, SACS said the violations were serious enough to result in probation.

"It's a big deal," said Belle Whelan, SACS president. "This issue was bigger than anything with which we’ve ever dealt, and it went on for longer than anything else. This is the first one I can recall in the 10 years I’ve been here that we put an institution on probation for academic fraud or academic integrity."

​It wasn't immediately clear what impact that action would have on current students or faculty. SACS accreditation serves as a stamp of approval, explained Joy Gayles, who works in the College of Education at North Carolina State University and specializes in higher education accreditation.

UNC will report back to SACS in Spring 2016, when the board will vote on whether or not the probationary period will continue. Should the university lose accreditation, large sums of money would be at stake.

The group said UNC-CH violated seven principles, including integrity, program content, control of intercollegiate athletics, academic support services, academic freedom, faculty role in governance and Title IV program responsibilities.

SACS defines program content as: degree programs that embody a coherent course of study that is compatible with its stated mission and is based upon fields of study appropriate to higher education.

"It’s the root of what an academic institution does," Whelan said. "If you can’t count on the quality of the program that students enroll and are granted a degree then what can you do? Why do you exist as an institution?"

Mary Willingham, the former UNC learning specialist turned whistleblower, said running afoul of SACS was worse for UNC's reputation than its tangles with the NCAA.

She described the university's latest black eye as "embarassing."

"The NCAA can do one thing, but this is is worse to me because this affects the entire institution, not just the athletic department," she said.

In a message to the campus community, Folt called the probation "an expected consequence." Whelan said she had faith in Folt and the Board of Trustees to bring UNC back into compliance.

"They’ve worked very hard, and I believe they will continue to do so," she said.

The SACS decision comes after a review of the findings of independent investigator Kenneth Wainstein, who released a report in October that showed academic advisers at UNC-Chapel Hill steered student-athletes for 18 years toward classes that never met and required only a short paper to pass.

SACS vice president Cheryl Cardell told UNC-Chapel Hill officials in a November letter that Wainstein's findings didn't jibe with information the university provided to the accrediting organization in 2013, when officials insisted the fraud was limited to the activities of two people in the Department of African and Afro-American Studies.

Willingham said she believes that the trickle of revelations only served to aggravate SACS.