University Accreditation: The Unknown Clash

Published August 9, 2022

National Review Online

What kind of leader is Ron DeSantis? Undoubtedly, we get a clue from his widely discussed suspension of a state attorney who had publicly pledged that he would not enforce state laws against late-term abortions and sex-change surgeries for minors. An equally important clue, however, comes from a battle that far fewer have noticed. DeSantis is at odds with the Biden administration over university accreditation.

Are your eyes glazing over? Well, that is the point. DeSantis is at loggerheads with the Biden administration on an issue of great importance that, sadly, only education policy wonks tend to follow. DeSantis didn’t pick this fight with Biden over accreditation for the sake of tooting his own horn. University accreditation isn’t exactly a populist lightning rod, after all. And it’s actually Biden who is trying to squash DeSantis’s bold state-level move on accreditation, thereby turning the dispute into a federal issue. Policy, not publicity, has been DeSantis’s core motivation from the start.

In short, precisely because you’ve never heard of it, the DeSantis–Biden clash over university accreditation shows who DeSantis really is. Pushing back in unprecedented ways against the faceless bureaucracy that regularly frustrates conservative governance is what DeSantis does — whether or not you’re paying attention.

The DeSantis accreditation battle began in the spring of last year, when DeSantis’s education commissioner and former speaker of Florida’s house, Richard Corcoran, was being considered for the presidency of Florida State University (FSU). Since Corcoran is a conservative and committed to reforming higher education’s culture of intellectual conformity, the prospect of his appointment horrified FSU’s faculty and Florida’s left-leaning press. Nevertheless, Corcoran’s prospects looked good until Belle Wheelan, the head of FSU’s accrediting agency, stepped in to effectively scuttle his bid.

Accreditors certify that institutions of higher education meet basic standards of quality. Students can’t receive Pell Grants or federal student loans unless their institution is accredited. Since almost every college depends on such federal assistance, loss of accreditation is tantamount to an institutional death sentence.

That leverage gives the faceless bureaucrats who run FSU’s obscure accreditor — SACSCOC (Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges) — the power to kill off any serious campaign of university reform. Or rather, accreditors — who are supposed to be apolitical — can abuse their daunting powers by deploying them to protect the illiberal regime that currently governs America’s college campuses.

President Wheelan of SACSCOC makes a practice of writing unsolicited letters to universities whenever she reads a news story about something that might supposedly put them “out of compliance” with accreditor policy. Ostensibly, these letters are requests for further information. In practice, they read like threats to withdraw accreditation.

When Corcoran was up for the presidency of FSU, Wheelan wrote a letter to the chairperson of the Florida State University System Board of Governors suggesting that a conflict of interest and a potential lack of appropriate experience and qualifications on the part of an unnamed candidate might put FSU’s accreditation into question. The letter was widely understood to be referring to Corcoran. As a member of the University System Board of Governors, Corcoran had a potential conflict of interest in voting on his own job application. And even though Corcoran was Florida’s commissioner of education, a member of the University System Board of Governors, a former speaker of the house, and former chief of staff to Senator Marco Rubio, Wheelan was apparently arguing that he lacked qualifications for the academic position of university president.

Wheelan’s concerns were baseless. The Board of Governors planned to follow standard procedure and have Corcoran recuse himself from any vote on his own application for FSU’s presidency. As for experience and qualifications, political leaders often become university presidents. (Think of Mitch Daniels, former governor of Indiana and current president of Purdue.) In fact, two former Florida house speakers have helmed FSU in the last two decades, including John E. Thrasher, the incumbent president when Corcoran was under consideration. This is not to mention Corcoran’s education-based experience as Florida’s education commissioner and member of the University System Board of Governors.

National Association of Scholars (NAS) president Peter Wood made these points in an open letter to Wheelan, noting that her insistence on an academic background “by definition excludes all reform-minded outsiders.” In a follow-up piece, Wood decried “weaponization of an accrediting agency to dispose of candidates who are politically disfavored.” Notwithstanding such protests, however, Corcoran’s name was withdrawn from the short list of candidates for FSU’s presidency, very likely in response to the accreditor’s implied threat.

In the wake of the Corcoran affair, the Florida legislature enacted SB 7044, a bill that requires state colleges and universities to change accrediting agencies at the end of each accreditation cycle. By rotating accreditors, the bill reduces the ability of any single accreditor to abuse its regulatory powers. Although the Corcoran case was not explicitly put forward to justify the bill’s passage, most reports on the new law portray it (accurately, I think) as a response to the Corcoran controversy. Governor DeSantis strongly supported the bill and signed it into law.

Had matters ended there, a rare state-level experiment in accreditation would have begun to play out. The Biden education department, however, was not going to allow that to happen. It recently issued new guidance, accompanied by an explanatory blog post, all of which amount to an effort to neutralize the Florida law by effectively keeping the state’s universities chained to their current accreditors.

Andrew Gillen of the Texas Public Policy Foundation persuasively makes the case that Biden’s new accreditation guidance uses absurdly “twisted logic” to try to kill off Florida’s reform. NAS concurs. For the moment, however, let’s focus on what this dust-up reveals about DeSantis.

Gillen notes that the Florida bill is “one of the only accreditation experiments we’ve seen in decades.” That’s important. Accreditors such as Wheelan have turned themselves into de facto enforcers of the academy’s illiberal orthodoxies. Worse, they get barely any pushback from conservatives, even in red states. Just last year, another Wheelan letter effectively undermined the candidacy of former Georgia governor and Trump agriculture secretary Sonny Purdue to be chancellor of Georgia’s State University System. It took DeSantis and his allies in Florida to finally draw the line against this sort of regulatory abuse.

If you want to know why even public universities in red states find it hard to shake the woke ascendency, politicized accreditation is a big part of the reason (along with the quiescence of university regents). For decades, Republicans — much to their shame — have been reluctant to push back against the leftist education bureaucracy. True to form, however, DeSantis has broken that pattern and is leading the way on yet another cultural battle. Given the obscurity of the accreditation issue, it’s tough to dismiss this as political showboating. When DeSantis sees the Left using bureaucratic tricks to stymie conservative governance, he pushes back. That is who he is, and that is what he does.

But let’s not sit back and depend on DeSantis alone to fix things. It’s time for conservatives to wake up and fight back against the accreditation cartel. For one thing, we need to follow and support the accreditation struggle now joined between the Biden education department and DeSantis. As Gillen’s piece and the NAS commentary linked above make clear, DeSantis and Biden are now locked in a kind of chess game over accreditation. It’s now DeSantis’s move. How the game plays out over the next few years depends on both the courts and the Florida state legislature. Other states should take note and jump in.

Beyond that, we need to see federal reform of the accreditation system. The politicization of accreditation must be blocked. NAS has some proposals, and more are likely on the way, from both NAS and from other quarters.

Conservatives lost the commanding heights of the culture for many reasons, but failure to fight back against the leftist education establishment, even where we held the levers of power, is surely among the most important. Ron DeSantis is a very important exception to that unfortunate rule. His obscure accreditation quarrel with Biden may establish his culture-war credentials even more surely than his higher-profile controversies. Meanwhile, put accreditation on your personal radar screen, and let the battle be joined.

Stanley Kurtz is a Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. On a wide range of issues, from K-12 and higher education reform, to the challenges of democratization abroad, to urban-suburban policies, to the shaping of the American left’s agenda, Mr. Kurtz is a key contributor to American public debates. Mr. Kurtz has written on these and other issues for various journals, particularly National Review Online (where he is a contributing editor).

Photo by Vadim Sherbakov on Unsplash

Stanley Kurtz is a Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Beyond his work with Education and American Ideals, Mr. Kurtz is a key contributor to American public debates on a wide range of issues from K–12 and higher education reform, to the challenges of democratization abroad, to urban-suburban policies, to the shaping of the American left’s agenda. Mr. Kurtz has written on these and other issues for various journals, particularly National Review Online (where he is a contributing editor).

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