In an unexpected move, accreditors have put the University of South Florida St. Petersburg on probation for a year, citing noncompliance with two accrediting standards that involve measuring student progress.
The sanction, handed down Thursday, sent mild tremors through campus, but not panic.
Institutions with accreditation problems tend to be small and obscure, like the Sherman College of Straight Chiropractic, which also got hit with probation this week.
"I'm disappointed," regional chancellor Karen A. White said Friday. "But I know this campus will come together … and we'll provide compelling evidence" to satisfy accreditors' concerns.
White immediately sent an e-mail to students and faculty, assuring them the university maintains its accreditation and that a consultant with accreditation expertise will "guide us through our next steps."
She also noted the school met 87 of 89 standards, and that probation was not based on quality of faculty or programs.
The decision by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges comes almost two years to the day after the same group awarded the 43-year-old St. Petersburg campus separate accreditation from USF Tampa. Pushed hard by St. Petersburg civic leaders, it became the first regional campus to gain such accreditation.
Now other regional USF campuses are pursuing the same status. Just last week, USF president Judy Genshaft notified SACS of plans to seek separate accreditation for USF Sarasota-Manatee and the newly named USF Polytechnic in Lakeland.
USF Tampa officials said the probation announcement would not interrupt those plans.
"We know these are issues as the USF system matures," said Michael Hoad, a USF spokesman. "We have been working to address them."
Accreditation is the lifeblood of a university's credibility. Without it, students are not eligible for financial aid, recruitment suffers and a degree loses its value.
No public university in Florida has ever had its accreditation stripped. But other Florida colleges have been put on probation, most recently Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, which SACS took off probation this week.
The accreditors' concerns about USF St. Petersburg were not new.
The commission put the university on warning status in December for failing to comply with the same two standards.
One deals with assessing the academic skill of general education students, in areas like writing and critical thinking. The other involves tracking student success after graduation, through measurements like job placement rates and passage rates on certification exams.
The first standard is particularly thorny. It plays into a simmering national debate about measuring student progress in higher education. And it has been a tough nut to crack for many institutions, said SACS president Belle Wheelan.
"We don't all agree on what we expect students who major in philosophy to be able to do, for example," Wheelan said. "If we don't all agree on what the outcome should be, there won't be an instrument to measure it."
USF officials said it will be more than a week before they get the details from commission officials on why they fell short.
Several faculty members said they were surprised. And stumped.
"A lot of people worked really hard to get the assessment part of the profile up to speed," said Ray Arsenault, who co-directs the Florida Studies Program at USF St. Petersburg. "It's really hard to imagine what more we could have done."
"I have to believe we were close," said state Rep. Bill Heller, D-St. Petersburg, a special education professor and former chancellor at the school.
Wheelan was traveling Friday and did not have USF St. Petersburg's files before her. But she said the problem could be the university hasn't installed its measurement system completely, or gathered enough data to know it's working.
Wheelan said the commission gave the university a year's probation, rather than a six-month option, because the school's shortcomings will require a longer time period to address.
If the university falls short again, it is likely to get its probation extended rather than lose accreditation, she said.
Since 2004, USF St. Petersburg has independently selected students, created courses and granted tenure to faculty. Last fall, enrollment topped 5,300.
Heller said some people did not favor separate accreditation and may see probation as validation.
"We just got to work hard and make sure we don't get any more negatives," he said.
Ron Matus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8873.