Gov. Ron DeSantis said Thursday he is suing President Joe Biden’s administration to stop accrediting agencies from having influence over the state’s colleges and universities.
Describing the accreditation programs as an affront to his executive power, DeSantis said the lawsuit targets the U.S. Department of Education, Secretary Miguel Cardona and other federal officials.
“We reject the idea that a totally unaccountable, appointed, unelected accrediting agency can trump what the state of Florida is doing,” DeSantis said during a news conference in Tampa. “We’re asking the court to find this arrangement to be unconstitutional.”
DeSantis cited the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which accredits universities in the Southeast and has questioned actions at Florida’s top universities in recent years. Losing accreditation could result in a loss of federal funds used for student scholarships and faculty grants.
“They try to stick their beak into different things with all this,” DeSantis said of the association.
The lawsuit follows a tense period between Florida and the Southern Association, which is the main regional accrediting body in 11 southern states. Until last year, the organization accredited all 12 of the state’s public universities.
But officials with the organization began raising questions in 2021 when former state education commissioner Richard Corcoran, now interim president of New College, was added late in the selection process to the list of finalists to be president of Florida State University. Members of the Board of Governors, which oversees the university system, began to express frustration, saying the association had overstepped.
A short time later, the association launched an investigation at the University of Florida, looking into allegations of political interference after a group of UF professors were initially forbidden from testifying as experts in cases against the state.
Last year, in a sign of Republican leaders pushing back, the Legislature approved a measure requiring universities to find a new accreditor at the end of each evaluation cycle. The bill also allowed universities to sue an accreditor for damages if they believed they had been negatively impacted. It was signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis.
This year, that law was amended so that schools did not have to switch their accreditor after the initial change. To seek a new accreditor, a Florida university must first seek permission from the U.S. Department of Education.
So far, the University of Central Florida and Florida Polytechnic University have reached out to make a change. According to a Board of Governors staff member, federal education officials asked follow-up questions in May and both schools are in the process of drafting a response.
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The DeSantis lawsuit, filed in federal court in Fort Lauderdale, accuses Congress of ceding “unchecked power to private accrediting agencies to dictate education standards to colleges and universities.”
“Making matters worse, colleges and universities cannot freely choose their masters, as federal law requires them to show ‘reasonable cause’ to change accreditors,” the complaint states. “The result is that private accrediting agencies enjoy near limitless power over state institutions.”
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