RICHMOND, Virginia — A nonprofit group representing trustees and alumni from colleges around the country is seeking an investigation by the U.S. Department of Education into an accreditation agency's decision to put the University of Virginia on warning for its failed attempt to fire its president last summer.
The American Council of Trustees and Alumni contends the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools' Commission on Colleges overstepped its role as an accrediting agency and had no basis for the warning it issued over the school's messy bid to oust Teresa Sullivan, its first woman president.
"We believe there is substantial reason to believe that the accreditor has inappropriately become involved in a power struggle between the president, faculty, and the board of trustees and urge you to investigate," Anne D. Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, wrote to Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Kay W. Gilcher, director of the accreditation division at the U.S. Department of Education. The letter was dated Dec. 31.
The accrediting commission did not immediately respond Monday to telephone messages and emails seeking comment.
The U.Va. warning was issued Dec. 11 by the accreditation agency based on governance issues. It concluded that a minority of board members attempted to cast out Sullivan and that faculty leaders were not consulted on or alerted to the decision. The commission plans to send a team to U.Va. to determine whether the university was out of compliance with association rules.
Warning notices are fairly common in higher education, although less so at prominent institutions such as U.Va. They typically are resolved without punishment.
U.Va.s' governing board stunned the campus the weekend of June 10 when it announced that Sullivan would be leaving the university. The board cast it initially as a mutually agreed separation.
The announcement, however, triggered an outcry over the lack of explanation, leading to two weeks of protests, resignations and reneged donations until officials reinstated Sullivan on June 26.
Rector Helen Dragas defended the decision to oust Sullivan, arguing the university wasn't acting quickly to address state and federal funding reductions, the emergence of online education and other issues.
In her letter to DOE, Neal said the warning amounts to a "blatant intrusion" into the governance of U.Va. established originally by founder Thomas Jefferson and codified by the Virginia General Assembly.
Neal also said it was "ludicrous" for the accrediting agency to suggest that the Faculty Senate should have advance notice of the board's decision to fire a president.
"It appears that SACS' real issue is not the absence of a board policy, but the substance of the board's policy," Neal wrote.
Faculty Senate Chairman George Cohen said the faculty's primary concern is to "strengthen the principle of shared governance" to spare the university a repeat of the Sullivan debacle.
"The final decision on issues of presidential hiring and firing of course rests with the board, but in our view, the board should take into consideration the views of the faculty on these matters," Cohen wrote in an email. He said the accrediting agency should be "appropriately concerned" about the issue.
In an interview, Neal said the warning has damaged U.Va.'s reputation and she wants the DOE to put the accrediting agency on notice that its proper role is to ensure educational quality "and not to intrude on the governance processes of our colleges and universities."
Neal wrote that the association's actions raise serious questions about its compliance with DOE regulations overseeing standards for accrediting agencies.
Universities must be accredited by independent but government-designated organizations to receive federal student aid such as student loans and Pell Grants.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Education confirmed receipt of the complaint and said an investigation could focus on whether an agency is out of compliance with "criteria for recognition," a heavily detailed road map for accrediting agencies.
U.Va. declined through a spokesman to comment on the complaint.