A Question For Belle Wheelan

By Carol Schuler    //    Volume 31,  Number 2   //    March/April 2023

Belle S. Wheelan, PhD, serves as the president and chief executive officer of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools’ Commission on Colleges (SACSCOCS) and is the first Black and the first woman to serve in this capacity. Her career spans more than 40 years and includes the roles of faculty member, chief student services officer, campus provost, college president, and Virginia Secretary of Education.

She earned her doctorate from the University of Texas at Austin in educational administration with a special concentration in community college leadership and has received numerous awards and recognitions. Involved in many organizations, Wheelan’s board service includes American College Testing, Inc.; American Association of Community Colleges; the Lumina Foundation for Education; National Black College Alumni Hall of Fame; Excelencia in Education; National Student Clearinghouse; National Society of Collegiate Scholars, Community College Honorary Board; Next Generation Learning Challenges Advisory Panel; and Project GOALS (Gaining Online Accessible Learning Through Self-Study).

What questions should trustees ask about institutional accreditation and its significance to their institution?

Board members need to know the standards that every college must meet in order to remain accredited. They should understand what happens if an institution loses its accreditation, and why an institution needs to be accredited. Every board member should know the general answers to these questions as well as the strategic significance to their institution. Board leadership is critical to ensure that the institution is prepared for the self-study process used in accreditation and for the close examination of the institution that is involved.

What actions can accreditors take when there is clear evidence of undue influence or intrusion in board governance?

Every accrediting agency has its own actions that are determined by its members. For us (SACSCOCS), our board always has five choices when it takes actions related to an institution’s accreditation: decide the institution has demonstrated compliance with all standards and require no further action; ask for a monitoring report for additional information; place the institution on warning; place the institution on probation; or drop the institution from membership.

For example, one institution recently denied faculty the opportunity to testify as expert witnesses against the state. It was reported in the media that this was a directive that had been given by the governor. Since it was reported in the media, we wrote a letter per our unsolicited information policy asking for additional information. There were two standards of concern: academic freedom and undue external influence. The institution sent back documentation that the decision was not made by the governor but by the president of the institution. Regarding the academic freedom issue, though the documentation returned was voluminous, in reviewing it, we felt it fell short in responding to our concerns. So, we sent a committee to gather more information. The report of the committee was taken to our board of trustees, who felt that the institution did demonstrate compliance with our standards and decided no further action was needed.

What do you see as the most pressing challenges facing accreditors in the next three to five years?

The infusion of politics into the daily workings of the institution—that is, curriculum decisions, hiring decisions.

We had a situation where one of our institutions wanted to add some engineering courses to its offerings and another institution, better known for its engineering programs, complained to the governor of the state. The governor then called the board members of the state board (who are appointed by the governor) and told them not to allow this to happen. The chair of the system board called and asked me if the governor’s involvement constituted undue political influence. I said I thought it did. He asked me to make a presentation to the board explaining their role in protecting the institution from undue influence. After the presentation, the board voted to allow the institution to offer the courses. The point here is that it is the role of the board to approve curriculum offerings based on the information they receive, not because someone outside tells them to or not to do so.

–Carol Schuler

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