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Closer look at the University of South Carolina's accreditation and its future

With the SACSCOC requesting more information about the presidential search, WLTX is taking a closer look at how the University is accredited and what it does

COLUMBIA, S.C. — This week, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC) sent a letter to the University of South Carolina requesting more information about its search for a new president.

The letter came after complaints from one trustee, Charles Williams, that Governor Henry McMaster was pressuring board members to vote on General Robert Caslen. 

Caslen, originally passed over along with three other finalists in April, was expected to receive a vote last Friday, but the meeting was cancelled.

A new meeting has been scheduled for Friday, July 19 at 10am at the Alumni Center. An agenda for the meeting for has not been posted online as of Wednesday afternoon, according to the board's website.

The board's activity in recent weeks has drawn criticism and support from state lawmakers, presidential candidates, students, staff, and faculty.

Earlier this week, SACSCOC's letter said, "I am writing you today because a July 9, 2019, article by staff of WLTX (Columbia, SC) regarding the current process for hiring a new CEO raises questions about the University of South Carolina's ongoing compliance with the Principles of Accreditation."

"In particular, the article highlights concerns about the institution's compliance with Standard 4.2.f which states that the "governing board protects the institution from undue influence by external persons or bodies," the letter continues.

Tuesday, Governor Henry McMaster's office responded, as did the University.

The SACSCOC is tasked with looking over institutions in 11 states, including Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, Florida, Norther Carolina, Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee. 

Overall, they accredit 794 institutions in those 11 states along with some institutions located abroad. They are the 2nd largest of 7 regional accrediting agencies. 

The SACSCOC partners with the United States Department of Education to accredit each institution and make sure they're following the rules so they're eligible for United States federal financial aid. 

As part of its oversight, the U.S. Department of Education reviews SACSCOC every five years. The Commission's last review with the federal government was in 2017.

When reached by phone Wednesday, SACSCOC President and Dr. Belle Wheelan, set to begin her 15th year at the helm next week, laid out the next steps for the University and why accreditation is important.

The Commission's letter, sent this week, requested a response from USC by August 10th. 

"If they fixed it than we say, 'Thank you very much, sorry we bothered you.' If they're out of compliance, it gets forwarded to our board of trustees who then makes a determination on what happens. Whether they should go on a sanction or whether they should be dropped from membership," Wheelan said.

The next SACSCOC board meeting, scheduled for December of 2019, would determine a next step if it were deemed necessary.

The University is reviewed regularly every 10 years. The University's last review was 2011 and they're scheduled for another one in 2021, according to Wheelan.

The SACSCOC's policy of "Unsolicited Information" allows them to review new details outside a regularly scheduled institutional review, according to the letter and Wheelan.

The Commission's records show USC has never been on warning, probation, or dropped from membership, according to Wheelan.

But what happens if any institution ends up on warning or probation?

"It raises questions about, 'Well, are they going to be okay? Should I send my child there? Should I go there?' And so sometimes enrollments will decline and donations will decline until the sanction is lifted," Wheelan explained.

She added that it raises a red flag and grabs people's attention.

And if they go a step further, what happens to any institution if they lose membership and accreditation?

"They lose the confidence of the community, first of all. Because, you don't have to be accredited to exist. But, it's difficult for students to get their credits transferred and there's no access to federal financial aid if accreditation is lost. And so it's a big deal," Wheelan said over the phone.

However, both Wheelan and SACSCOC Vice President Dr. Linda Thomas-Glover made it clear to WLTX the University of South Carolina is still in the early steps of the review process and any further decisions or recommendations will come after USC's letter is received August 10th and would be made by the Commission's board.

"We don't enjoy putting sanctions on institutions or dropping them from membership, but sometimes, you know, it occurs," Wheelan said.

USC has till August 10 to respond and a University spokesman said they've been in communication with SACSCOC and will file a formal response.

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