The ongoing battle between Florida’s state university system and the leading higher education accreditation body has led to a few new back-and-forth smacks.
State University System Board of Governors member Alan Levine fired off a letter Wednesday to Belle Wheelan, president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC). Levine charged that she has been unduly interfering in Florida’s university system, and it’s not because she was merely asking questions about what’s going on in Florida.
Levine’s missive was in response to a statement Wheelan made to POLITICO on Tuesday complaining that the Board of Governors — and Levine specifically — had unduly accused the accreditation organization of getting too involved in Florida State University’s presidential search.
“This is the first time in the 17 years that I’ve been here that we’ve been accused of undue influence for asking for information or cautioning that a university might have been out of compliance,” Wheelan said.
Levine challenged her framing. He not only contended that she was wrong, but that she is misusing her influence to undermine both the reputations of Florida universities and individuals there, as well as her own credibility.
“My letter to you today was provoked by your statement in today’s media that you are being accused of undue influence for merely asking questions or giving caution to universities,” Levine wrote Wednesday. “With all respect, your letter to us last year was neither an inquiry nor reasonable caution. It ventured into our governance, and it created controversy affecting people, their careers and the confidence the public should have in our processes. And you did this without having any facts, relying merely upon a media story.”
The back-and-forth is yet another skirmish in the ongoing battle between Florida’s administration and the agency that holds immense power over universities and colleges throughout the South, offering the most-sought approval of how colleges and universities are run.
It’s not the first time Levine and Wheelan have tussled over SACSCOC’s alleged undue influence on presidential searches. SACSCOC did not immediately respond Wednesday to Levine’s latest charges.
Levine, the chair and CEO of Ballad Health and chair of the BOG’s strategic planning, cited several previous comments Wheelan has made, particularly when she noted issues involving Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran‘s brief, unsuccessful candidacy for the FSU presidency.
In an April 2021 letter, she wrote, “I’m concerned if he doesn’t step down from his position on the Board while he is a candidate for the position, since it is the Board of Governors that will be hiring the president, the SACSCOC Board of Trustees will find the institution out of compliance.”
That wasn’t a question or a caution, Levin contended. That was a threat — and therefore an attempt at undue influence in Florida’s business, Levine charged in his letter Wednesday. Levine also defended Florida’s process for selecting university presidents and contended that several individuals whom critics — paraphrasing Wheelan’s words — might find unqualified went on to become nationally recognized leaders in higher education from Florida.
“You have not asked my advice, but as a customer of SACS, I will offer it anyway. You have every responsibility to make inquiry, and ask questions. You do not have the right to draw conclusions without any facts, and to use your important position to influence the outcome of our governance decisions. Your approach with respect to the Florida State University search is but one example that has severely undermined my confidence in your independence and capacity to be objective with respect to our universities,” Levine concluded.