TALLAHASSEE — Leaders in the Florida House on Thursday introduced legislation that takes aim at the accrediting body for the state university system after the agency recently questioned political influence at two flagship universities.
Two top state university officials signaled support for the idea, but faculty union groups raised concerns about “more political interference” in the higher education system.
The push comes after the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, or SACS, raised questions about potential conflicts in Florida State University’s presidential search and investigated the University of Florida for potentially violating “undue political influence” standards.
“When the accrediting agency itself interferes with governance, you have to start asking some tough questions about what their role is,” said Alan Levine, a member of the state university system’s Board of Governors.
House leaders have begun tackling those concerns in a measure that would prohibit Florida universities and colleges from being accredited by the same body for consecutive cycles, requiring a change each five-year cycle.
The change would force all state universities and colleges to seek an alternative to the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, the current accreditor for all public universities and colleges in the south. There are six other regional accrediting bodies and dozens of other institutional accreditors across the nation.
The goal of accreditation is to ensure higher education institutions meet quality standards for the institution, its programs and curriculum. It is also needed for colleges to receive federal student aid. Maintaining quality standards plays a role in the national college ranking system, which has been a focus for Gov. Ron DeSantis and Republican leaders.
On Thursday, Democrats on the House Post-Secondary Education & Lifelong Learning Subcommittee, where the measure was introduced, raised concerns that the changes to the accreditation system could lead to a “gaming of the system.”
The bill (PCB PEL 22-01) would also create an avenue for universities and colleges to sue an accrediting agency or association that has negatively impacted them after taking “retaliatory action” against them.
Marshall Criser III, the chancellor of the university system, said it would be “nice to be able to go into this process kind of with a level playing field and not feel that you might be at a disadvantage against the current accreditor.”
“If the university’s reputation is damaged because of negligence or malfeasance by an outside entity, I would think that it should be within their right to hold the organization accountable,” Levine said. “I’ve been here long enough to see several times where I felt governance was being interfered with by the outside accreditation agency.”
But United Faculty of Florida President Andrew Gothard was concerned that the effort would “intimidate accrediting bodies into allowing more political interference on our higher education campuses.”
Gothard also worried that the changes to how Florida schools would be accredited has the potential to harm the institutions’ ranking and reputation.
“The quality of the accrediting body that you have determines how well respected your institution, or even your department, is around the country,” Gothard said.
Belle S. Wheelan, the president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, told the Times/Herald on Thursday that the accreditor raised questions about what was happening at FSU and UF because it was following its policy to investigate unsolicited information.
In those cases, the accreditor learned about potential issues of noncompliance through news reports.
The reports revealed that UF administrators had denied three professors’ requests to serve as paid expert witnesses in a voting rights lawsuit against the state, and that education commissioner Richard Corcoran was seeking to become president of FSU. Corcoran is a member of the state university system’s Board of Governors, which ultimately would have had to approve the candidate selected by the FSU Board of Trustees.
In response to those reports, Wheelan said she raised questions about potential conflicts of interests in the presidential search and potential issues of “undue political influence” in the case of UF.
“Even though there are other schools in Florida who have over the years gotten similar letters, I think that the fact that the two flagship institutions, in close proximity getting letters, upset them,” Wheelan said.
In a May 15, 2021 interview for the FSU president job, Corcoran said Southern Association of Colleges and Schools’actions in the middle of the presidential search were “wrong.”
“SACS needs FSU and Florida more than Florida and FSU need SACS,” Corcoran said. “I’ll say it here, SACS is going down a path that if it continues over the next three, four, five years, there will be a backlash against the accreditation agency and other alternative methods will start seeing themselves out. And that is not good for the whole system. I think they should be what they are, an accreditation agency.”
Republican state Rep. Amber Mariano, R-Hudson, did not mention the instances in which the accrediting body has butted heads with state education officials when introducing the proposed legislation on Thursday.
Instead, Mariano said that the bill is meant to allow universities to “pick the accrediting agency that best suits their goals.”
“This gives them more options because right now they are locked into one accreditor,” Mariano said. “They can pick which one goes best with what their priorities are.”
Criser said the bill would give universities “freedom.”
“You need to be comfortable that you’re not going to have some kind of adverse reaction, the same as any entity moving around in a free marketplace,” he said. “There shouldn’t be penalties to looking at what your options are.”
Florida universities and colleges do have more options now. In 2020, the U.S. Department of Education revised federal regulations that allowed schools to pursue accreditation from groups regardless of geographical boundaries.
Colleges can’t ‘just pick’ anyone
Wheelan said universities will not be able to “just pick” the accreditor they want. They will need to apply, and they will have dozens of options, she said.
“I don’t think that it is in the best interests of the institutions and don’t think they realize that you can’t just go to another accreditor,” she said. “You have to apply and there is an application process … you don’t just automatically get accreditation.”
It is unclear how many options Florida universities and colleges would have. According to the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, all institutional accreditors are free to accredit colleges and universities through the United States, but the accreditors would have to be interested in expanding beyond their current geographic area.
Wheelan said she has never seen a piece of legislation like the one Florida House leaders have introduced as part of a broader higher education package.
In the Senate, there is no companion bill yet.
Senate Education Appropriations Subcommittee vice chairperson Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, is amicable to the proposal, but was unable to provide much insight as to how his colleagues felt about it.
“I am open-minded to it, let’s just say that,” he said.
Times/Herald staff writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report.
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