UNC-Chapel Hill’s accrediting body has removed the university from probationary status after a yearlong sanction.
At a meeting of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges on Thursday in Memphis, Tenn., it lifted UNC’s probation, thereby putting its accreditation back on solid ground.
A year ago, the accrediting body leveled its most serious sanction at UNC following the long-running academic and athletic scandal in which 3,100 students were enrolled in no-show classes during a two-decade period. The organization’s board handed down 12 months of probation for failing to meet seven accreditation standards, including academic integrity and control of athletics.
Thursday’s decision followed several reviews by SACS in recent years, culminating in the 2015 probation decision, which was a rare step to take against a major U.S. research university.
The only action more severe would have been for SACS to revoke a university’s accreditation altogether – something that almost no one thought would happen to UNC. Losing accreditation means losing eligibility for federal funding and has led some colleges to shut down.
Belle Wheelan, president of the SACS Commission on Colleges, said Thursday that the board’s questions about UNC were satisfied.
“They have done so many things to put safeguards in place to ensure this doesn’t happen, including the appointment of an integrity officer,” Wheelan said. “The board felt that they really are sincere about making sure that the stigma is removed and all the safeguards are in place that can be in place.”
On Thursday afternoon, UNC posted a video of Chancellor Carol Folt announcing the decision, saying that the university had demonstrated that reforms and new initiatives “are working, and working well.”
In an interview, Folt said she was pleased, but added: “I don’t see this as a victory lap, I see it as an affirmation of the diligence and persistence and the hard work that people have done, and the reinforcement that we’re doing things right.”
Folt answered questions from SACS representatives on Tuesday in Memphis. A committee from the accrediting body had conducted a site visit in Chapel Hill in April.
Folt formed working groups to examine integrity, ethics and university processes. She created a new position for a high-level integrity officer.
“We have been very open and very admitting of our own shortcomings,” she said. “At the same time, we have been putting into place every single thing we could think of. Many of these are things that aren’t in place at other institutions.”
The university mounted a huge effort to implement changes and document them for the accrediting body in the past year. But there was little evidence that probation affected recruiting, student applications or fundraising.
Still, said Andrew Perrin, professor of sociology, “Probation was a tremendous embarrassment.
“For an institution like Carolina with the kind of ambition that we have, and that we usually fulfill, to be in the category of ‘on probation with the accreditor,’ that’s pretty embarrassing,” Perrin added. “Ultimately what really matters was that we were embarrassed about what went on. We fixed what went on. We fixed what the accreditation agency was worried about. Now the focus is on really trying to live up to that ambition.”
In 2012, after the scandal first arose, SACS required UNC to undergo extensive monitoring reports.
After the 2014 investigation at UNC by former federal prosecutor Kenneth Wainstein, SACS launched a second review of UNC, saying it had concerns about UNC’s compliance with 18 accreditation standards.
The Wainstein report revealed an extensive pattern of academic fraud, including hundreds of fake independent studies and no-show classes in the African and Afro-American Studies department. Athletes were disproportionately enrolled in the courses, which only required a final paper and resulted in high grades that helped players maintain eligibility.
In its decision last year, SACS cited seven areas where the university didn’t meet standards: overall integrity; program content; control of intercollegiate athletics; academic support services; academic freedom; faculty role in governance; and compliance with provisions in federal financial aid law.
The university’s accreditation is safe, but there are hurdles ahead.
In April the NCAA served UNC with an amended Notice of Allegations, with five top-level allegations of wrongdoing. The document did not reference men’s basketball and football specifically in the latest allegations, which largely focused on women’s basketball. The university will face an infractions hearing before the NCAA, and any penalty phase may not happen until next year.
Also next year, the university will be before SACS again for its regular reaffirmation of accreditation – a review that happens once a decade.
“They have a year to make sure that all this works,” Wheelan said.
Here is a list of some of the reforms implemented by UNC:
▪ Added faculty to a group that reviews student-athlete eligibility and progress toward degree.
▪ Established a working group to ensure there are clear and confidential channels through which people can share concerns.
▪ Expanded process for the consistent evaluation and review of every department.
▪ Required review of department chairs.
▪ Severed dotted-line reporting relationship between Academic Support Program for Student-Athletes and the Department of Athletics.
▪ Classroom checks. The university makes spot inspections to ensure scheduled classes are meeting.
▪ Stricter guidelines and limits for independent study courses.
▪ New tracking of faculty teaching assignments.
▪ Reorganized Academic Support Program for Student-Athletes, with a new leader who reports to the provost.
▪ Started a My Academic Plan initiative, which gives student-athletes individualized plans according to their preparation and needs.
▪ Reviewed student-athletes’ academic experience, from recruitment to graduation.
▪ Revamped Faculty Athletics Committee.
▪ Reduced numbers of prospective student-athletes who require special committee review because they don’t meet academic requirements.
To see the entire list of changes, go to carolinacommitment.unc.edu/actions-and-initiatives/actions-and-initiatives/