By Dr. Marybeth Gasman
On Thursday, June 26, 2008, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) removed Florida A & M University (FAMU) from its list of institutions on accreditation probation. The historically Black institution seems primed for success, with President James Ammons including all of the campus constituents in his plan for the future of the institution.
Since Black colleges are found almost exclusively in the Southern and Border states, most of them are accredited by SACS. In the past, this organization has been criticized for its disproportionate attention to HBCUs [for a thorough discussion of this issue see Understanding Minority Serving Institutions]. For example, between 1996 and 2005, 25 percent of the SACS’ sanctions related to HBCUs, while these institutions make up only 13 percent of SACS’ membership. In addition, between 1989 and 2007, nearly half of the 20 institutions that lost their accreditation from SACS were historically Black.
Most reprimands and revocations of accreditation are the result of financial deficits; however, faculty quality, campus infrastructure, and student enrollments play a crucial part in the accreditation process. Unfortunately, the loss of accreditation often has a snowball effect, making it impossible for an institution to distribute financial aid, leading to a loss of students. As a result, some of these tuition-driven institutions cannot recover financially, which dooms their chance at reaccreditation.
Of note, the SACS’ Commission on Colleges installed its first African American president, Belle S. Wheelan, in 2005. The previous president led the organization for 20 years. Wheelan recognized the past tension between Black colleges and SACS; she has worked to increase communication with and provide educational programming for HBCUs to better their ability to maintain accreditation. Wheelan has also committed to hiring more Black employees to enhance the image of the organization and improve its relationships with HBCU members. Since Wheelan took office, SACS has placed fewer Black colleges on probation.
In response to the accreditation problems at many HBCUs, the Southern Education Foundation (SEF) established a Black college leadership program in 2004. It is funded by the Mott and Mellon Foundations and run out of SEF’s Center to Serve Historically Black Colleges and Universities. The initiative provides small grants, ranging from $10,000 to $20,000 to HBCUs to assist them in maintaining their accreditation. SEF also provides funding to HBCU leaders to attend the annual SACS conference, hosting a special, day-long conference dedicated to issues faced by HBCUs. The goal, of course, is that HBCU administrators will gain the tools to succeed and will have the positive working relationships with SACS representatives that lead to open dialogue about accreditation issues.
The majority of the work in maintaining or regaining accreditation falls on the shoulders of HBCUs themselves, however. HBCU leadership MUST hire the best administrators possible and empower them to do their best work. These leaders MUST hold the highest standards for their staff and faculty and create working environments in which individuals develop a firm commitment to excellence.
With a new, energized leadership at many institutions and increased attention to the issue of accreditation, HBCUs seem poised for accomplishment.
An associate professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Gasman is the author of Envisioning Black Colleges: A History of the United Negro College Fund (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007) and lead editor of Understanding Minority Serving Institutions (SUNY Press, 2008).
Post Script: Belle S. Wheelan, the president of SACS’ Commission on Colleges, took issue with my depiction of her leadership of the organization. She noted that her efforts at SACS have not been directed specifically at HBCUs, but instead at small, private colleges (most of which are HBCUs) that have had difficulty attaining or maintaining accreditation in the past. She also noted that she herself has made no special efforts on the part of HBCUs and, in fact, does not have a vote in the accreditation process.