University accreditation tussle rhetoric ramps up

In seeking to defend Florida, official dismisses St. Thomas and FIT.

Key officials from the leading college accreditation association and Florida’s State University System escalated their war of words late Wednesday over what the association thinks about how Florida runs its universities and whether that should matter.

Belle Wheelan, president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC) and Alan Levine, a key member of the State University System Board of Governors, fired another round of notes back and forth late Wednesday. Those messages got harsher after Wheelan made critical comments to POLITICO Tuesday and Levine followed up with his first terse response Wednesday.

The latest letters were set in courteous pleasantries, but only on the surface, and only at the start.

At one point, Wheelan said she told Levine her role is to “trust but verify.” At another point Levine called a Wheelan observation “a joke.” She cited the officials of three Florida universities in her defense of SACSCOC’s credibility, then Levine dismissed them as not sufficient representatives of Florida’s higher education institutions.

Without making a specific allegation, Levine argued against “Mickey Mouse letters which contain unsupported assertions, no evidence and accusations of undue influence.

“If the facts support that a violation of accreditation exists, then come at us with all you’ve got. Otherwise, you should be invisible,” Levine challenged.

The fight, though sounding personal at times, is over serious official matters.

Accreditation both reflects and impacts the presumed integrity of the education and research that universities provide; universities’ potential to attract and retain the best and brightest faculty and students; the perceived value of graduates’ degrees in the jobs markets; and the award of billions of dollars of research and education grants and contracts.

SACSCOC, the leading accreditation body for colleges and universities from Texas to Virginia, grants accreditation based on institutions’ abilities and willingness to meet its standards and follow its protocols for higher education. Universities and colleges, in turn, provide credibility to SACSCOC’s accreditation program, based on their recognition of the accreditation as valid, and their voluntary acceptance of SACSCOC’s oversight as important.

The bickering between Wheelan and Levine began last year when Wheelan weighed in on the search for a new president at Florida State University.

In their latest correspondence, the two revisited Wheelan’s concerns about how the state selects university presidents and Levine’s musings about whether she possesses sufficient working knowledge of Florida’s universities, or whether SACSCOC possesses the gravitas to try to tell Florida how they ought to be run to begin with.

In her most recent response, Wheelan noted that SACSCOC’s board included officials of the University of Central Florida in Orlando, St. Thomas University in Miami Gardens, and Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne.

“They are quite capable of representing their colleagues on our board,” Wheelan wrote.

Levine dismissed St. Thomas and FIT and ignored UCF.

“With all respect, I disagree. Saint Thomas University and Florida Institute of Technology cannot begin to touch the more than $1 billion of research being conducted at the University of Florida and the nearly $600 million in research being conducted at University of South Florida. And I will not even entertain a discussion that suggests this,” Levine replied.

“The University of Florida, University of South Florida and Florida State University set standards with respect to research and access. (Seventy-five) percent of our state university system students do not even have to take out student loans. Show me another university system that is doing this, and we can talk about it. Meanwhile, please do not suggest that Saint Thomas University can stand in judgment about our major state universities,” he continued. “That is simply a joke.”

Levine hinted that SACSCOC ought not take on Florida in an argument over credibility.

“Florida does not shy away from high standards. In fact, we set them. Perhaps you could learn from what we are doing, and maybe apply them to your standards,” he wrote.

Wheelan concluded by saying she was willing to discuss the matters at any time.

Levine responded with, “Perhaps you can set aside how you have done things in the past, and have a serious conversation with us about how to move forward.  If you can, we are prepared to have a conversation. If not, we are wasting our time with this conversation. Let me know where you stand on this.”

Scott Powers

Scott Powers is an Orlando-based political journalist with 30+ years’ experience, mostly at newspapers such as the Orlando Sentinel and the Columbus Dispatch. He covers local, state and federal politics and space news across much of Central Florida. His career earned numerous journalism awards for stories ranging from the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster to presidential elections to misplaced nuclear waste. He and his wife Connie have three grown children. Besides them, he’s into mystery and suspense books and movies, rock, blues, basketball, baseball, writing unpublished novels, and being amused. Email him at [email protected]


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