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North Carolina’s public institutions, including community colleges, would need to change accreditors every cycle — typically between five and 10 years — under a bill that passed the state’s Senate this month.

Certain academic programs that may have more intricate or specific accreditation requirements, such as those in law, pharmacy or engineering, would be exempt under the bill.

Public colleges would also be able to sue individuals who knowingly made false statements about them to accreditors, if an accreditor reviews the institution as a result of the lie. The falsehood would have to be about something that, if true, would put the college out of compliance with accreditation standards. 

Accreditors generally have enjoyed a position out of the political fray, enabling them to focus on their roles overseeing federal student aid and assuring colleges meet certain financial and operational benchmarks.

But that has changed in recent years with targeting from conservative lawmakers. Most recently, former President Donald Trump this month outlined an audacious vision to replace the current slate of accreditors nationwide with organizations that would impose new rules on colleges, such as banning diversity officers.

North Carolina’s proposed legislation seems to stem from a political battle involving the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, or SACSCOC, which accredits University of North Carolina System colleges.

Earlier this year, SACSCOC President Belle Wheelan questioned why the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill trustees “accelerated” development of what they called a School of Civic Life and Leadership. Supporters cast the new school as a hub for free inquiry, while detractors argued it would only promote conservative values. 

Wheelan at the time asked whether faculty were involved in the school’s creation — their absence otherwise would chafe against higher ed’s shared governance model. 

SACSCOC in February formally asked for more background on the new school. Such inquires are common among accreditors. 

However, Wheelan faced a wave of conservative backlash. North Carolina’s congressional Republicans wrote to Wheelan in early March, telling her they “expect accreditors not to prejudge actions of governing boards, follow normal processes, be attentive to such matters of public importance, and act in accord with federal and state law.”

The federal lawmakers — led by Rep. Virginia Foxx, chair of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce — demanded Wheelan explain her concerns with the Chapel Hill board’s actions and asked her the degree to which SACSCOC vets media reports about controversies before inquiring about them. 

About a month after the letter was sent, North Carolina state Republicans introduced the accreditation bill.

Neither the UNC nor community college system responded to requests for comment Tuesday.

What are people saying about the bill?

The proposal has attracted nationwide attention, including from the conservative-aligned American Council of Trustees and Alumni, an organization advocating governing boards to take a more active role in setting policy.

Nick Down, senior program officer for trustee and government affairs with the group, delivered an impassioned defense of the bill in an essay published Monday in the North State Journal newspaper. He wrote that the bill was taking on the accreditation “monopoly.”

Accreditors are flawed judges of high quality “and ought to be taken to task,” Down wrote. 

Indeed, criticism abounds from consumer advocates that accreditors have little incentive to hold colleges in their purview accountable, as institutions pay to be members of their accrediting group.

Meanwhile, the Coalition for Carolina, a group dedicated to fighting partisanship on the Chapel Hill campus, wrote in an online post last month it was “dangerous” to give politicians control over accreditation. Politicizing accreditation could result in colleges losing access to financial aid and in creating poor academic standards, the organization wrote.

Accreditation challenges

Changing accreditors regularly is also a practical challenge. Applying for accreditation can take many months and require in-depth paperwork and campus visits from accreditation officials. Plus, colleges must maintain accreditation with their current agency while seeking a new one. 

Similar concerns were raised when Florida lawmakers in 2021 mandated that its public colleges move accreditors every cycle. The requirement stemmed from a similar political battle, after Wheelan suggested it would be a conflict of interest for Richard Corcoran, Florida’s former education commissioner, to take the Florida State University presidency. 

That’s because Corcoran at the time sat on the board that signs off on college presidents. SACSCOC, which has accredited Florida State since 1915, investigated the matter and drew ire from governing board officials and lawmakers alike. 

Corcoran dropped out of consideration for the Florida State job, but later took over as interim leader of the New College of Florida. Students and faculty at the public liberal arts college have criticized Corcoran and its trustee board for changes they have since made, including eliminating its diversity office.