Gov. Ron DeSantis is opening another legal battle against the federal government, this time over the power of private accreditation agencies over state universities.
“In America you need to be accountable to somebody, and right now they’re accountable to nobody,” DeSantis said at a press conference in Tampa. “We believe we have a great chance of succeeding in this lawsuit.”
The lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Education (USDOE) and Secretary Miguel Cardona was filed in the U.S. Southern District of Florida and claims the accreditation agencies have too much sway over governing state universities. The agencies’ decisions regarding accreditation can affect federal financial aid and grant money, which the lawsuit claims is an unconstitutional delegation of the authority of the federal government.
“The audacity, the ever-increasing power grab by private agencies over the states’ ability to govern taxpayer-funded institutions has been astounding,” said Attorney General Ashley Moody.
Moody cited a series of incidents where the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) threatened the accreditation of Florida universities. Most recent was when the group indicated the accreditation of Florida State University (FSU) could be in trouble as its board of trustees considered a new President in 2021.
At the time, then-Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran — who was a member of the Board of Governors for the State University System, which oversees universities — was a candidate for the job. Such a conflict of interest was enough to trigger a letter from SACS threatening to declare the school out of compliance with its standards if Corcoran didn’t resign while the search was ongoing.
The trustees eventually handed the position to Richard McCollough, a former vice provost for research at Harvard University. Corcoran was later named President of New College, a small liberal arts college in Sarasota that is being given a conservative makeover by DeSantis.
The FSU incident prompted the Legislature to pass a law requiring state universities to seek out alternative accrediting agencies. The USDOE responded last year by passing new regulations requiring its approval before a school can move to a new accrediting agency.
BOG Chairman Ray Rodrigues, a former GOP state Senator, said the University of Central Florida sent in its request to move agencies six months ago and didn’t receive a decision, but got more questions about its application.
“We went six months hearing nothing from the Department of Education on this request,” Rodrigues said.
DeSantis claimed the accrediting agencies lean liberal and want to impose that ideology on the schools they oversee, even though they aren’t elected or appointed by elected officials.
“They’re pursuing their agenda,” DeSantis said. “The question is: Whose agenda should ultimately govern?”