Today’s Inside Higher Ed carries news of an interesting federal-court ruling from North Georgia. St. Andrews Presbyterian College, an 800-student school in North Carolina, sued the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools in 2007, alleging that the association’s finding that the school did not have a “sound financial base” was an unlawful violation of the school’s common-law right to due process. Apparently, the association was on the verge of stripping the college’s accreditation because it was (and is) heavily in debt. The school argued that the terms “sound financial base” or “financial stability” did not provide precise enough standards to guide either the school or the association.
A federal court disagreed:
United Stated District Court Judge William S. Duffey, Jr., of the Northern District of Georgia, writes in his opinion that accrediting agencies like SACS “are to be afforded great deference” in their rulings and that “these interpretations should be upheld unless ‘clearly erroneous.’ ” He further notes that “the weight of authority” allows SACS to “maintain flexible standards” to evaluate myriad institutions. Dismissing the arguments of St. Andrews, Duffey states that “SACS’ compliance requirements are not impermissibly unspecific” but “provide sufficient notice to member institutions and thus do not violate common law due process standards.”
Elsewhere, the court noted that it did not want to be a “super-accreditation” board and expressed reluctance to weigh into the intricacies of higher-ed accreditation.
At one level, it’s tough to argue with the conclusion that high debt loads equal financial instability. On the other hand, creating concrete metrics to measure stability is not that difficult and is done every day in the business world.
By conditioning virtually any meaningful federal or state educational benefit on accreditation and then by explicitly recognizing specific accreditors, the government has imbued them with an astonishing level of power over colleges and universities. Is it too much to expect powerful entities to promulgate precise standards? While it seems easy for a court to wash its hands of a case when a debt-burdened college challenges a financial-stability finding, excessive deference could prove dangerous. After all, how does one measure a commitment to “diversity” or “social justice” or any of the other ideological “metrics” that are creeping into the accreditation process? Can a federal court really wash its hands of accreditation decisions when the accreditor derives its power from the government?