Presidential Commentary: Room For Improvement in Accreditation Should Not Be Confused With Bias Against HBCUs

The process of accreditation is fairly standard.  The “rules and regulations” of accreditation known as the Southern Association of State Colleges and Universities’ Commission on Colleges’ (SACSCOC) Standards and Core Principles outline the expectations for an institution if it wants to be classified as acceptable, at the very least, and extraordinary at the highest level of institutional operation. 

Every institution that is a member of an accrediting agency has, by its very membership, agreed to live by those standards and principles.

These institutions have agreed, again by the nature of their membership, that the process by which the standards and principles were established is fair and equitable to all institutions.  They are based on and supported by empirical data, research, and best practices in educational methodology, administrative and financial management, effective governance and exemplary student welfare.  

There is no inclusion or reference to cultural, political, or social mores, biases, or historic influence in the development of the standards and principles nor in the directives as to how they should be assessed.

And yet, these very factors continue to drive the discussion on the fairness of accreditation as it pertains to historically black colleges. We must be absolutely clear; the accreditation process is a fair one.  The “must do” statements are clear and concise. They are well-written and consistent across the “test.” Having previously served as a Director of Accreditation Program Review and having reviewed literally hundreds of “must do” statements, I can attest to the fact that this current process is far more institutionally friendly, manageable, relevant and useful for SACSCOC member institutions.  

I served as an HBCU president during the tenure of both Dr. Belle Wheelan and her predecessor. I know that the process is fairer to institutions – to HBCUs – under her leadership than it was during the tenure of her predecessor. The agency provides more directed support and assistance to select institutions who may be struggling to meet all of the standards and principles.  The current agency takes calls; recommends consultants and experienced colleagues; provides cues and clues when sought; and appoints visiting teams that include members who understand the mores and the cultures of HBCUs.

What can’t always be managed is how the teams appointed to review and assess our schools evaluate the institutions’ reports.  Each member of the team brings to that process their own experiences influenced by their education, cultural, political, social mores, biases, and personal history.  There is no way to manage, control or plan for those undetermined factors. There are no objective means by which SACSCOC could ever control the outcome of a collective team’s assessment and evaluation.  Nor should there be.

The question should be asked and someday answered:  Why aren’t SOME HBCUs better prepared for the process? All institutions know what the expectations are.  All institutions have the same opportunities to learn how to manage the process. All institutions have the same amount of time to prepare.  MOST institutions, MOST HBCUs, never find themselves on the short end of the accreditation process. Small or large, private or public — why?

If the system really is so unfair, why are so many institutions successfully and continuously navigating the process?   

Is there discrimination in the process?  Is there unfairness? Is there some bias and prejudice against HBCUs?  Of course, just as there is in every other area of our lives. But we come into membership, evaluation, and review knowing these elements are part of life as an accredited institution. The question we have to ask honestly and quickly is “How come some institutions have mastered how to play the game and others haven’t?”  

Rather than continue to debate this issue ad nauseum, the United Negro College Fund, National Association For Equal Opportunity in Higher Education, and the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, should work together to develop, and implement a plan to ensure that ALL HBCUs learn how to operate, how to interpret and administer/manage the required standards and objectives in order to stay in the game.

Dianne B. Suber served as the 10th president of Saint Augustine’s University in Raleigh, NC.

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