Could LSU’s accreditation be at risk? Look to Auburn

Rally 19

(Photo credit: chadinbr)

By Robert Mann

LSU officials say there’s nothing to worry about. That remarkable letter from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) Commission on Colleges – the national accrediting body — suggesting that SACS did not know who was actually in charge of the university is just a minor matter.

And SACS’ concern that LSU’s proposed reorganization plan might not meet its standards? Again, just a misunderstanding, they say. Once SACS understands, everything will be fine.

Maybe, but it’s not likely SACS often sends letters to flagship universities which say, in essence, we have no idea who is running your institution.

So, if you’re worried that the overt political control of the LSU System by Gov. Bobby Jindal and his handpicked Board of Supervisors might jeopardize the school’s accreditation, ignore the happy talk of the LSU System Office. Look, instead, to history.

It wasn’t that long ago, in 2003, that SACS put Auburn University on probation – just one step away from yanking the school’s accreditation – for somewhat-similar problems.

Auburn University

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According to a 2004 report on the website of the American Association of University Professors, Academe Online:

A letter from the accreditor made public by the university spelled out the ways in which Auburn had not complied with accreditation requirements. Among them, it was insufficiently committed to and did not cooperate fully with the accreditation process; it did not demonstrate a clear delineation between the role of the president and that of the trustees, nor did it establish that the board was not controlled by a minority of board members; it did not demonstrate a clear distinction between the role of the board (to make policy) and that of the faculty and administrators (to administer and implement policy); the president did not exercise sufficient control over athletics funds; and it was unclear whether he exercised control over the athletics program.

Critics have charged in recent years that individual trustees have exercised too much control over the university’s day-to-day operations, and that many board members have inappropriate financial ties to the university or to each other. In 2001, a group representing faculty, students, and alumni asked the accrediting association to investigate several situations, including the board’s dismissal of the university’s then-president William Muse, its involvement in the university’s athletics program, and its perceived secrecy.

The problems at Auburn are similar to those at LSU in several interesting ways.

For one, the school’s critics charged that its Board of Trustees was too involved in the operations of the campus. Among the evidence cited was the way that university critics of the board were summarily fired for their dissent.

In a September 23, 2004, letter to SACS the Auburn University Chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) said:

There presently exists a chilling atmosphere on campus as a result of firings, demotions, the elimination of positions and the placing of individuals who go along with the Board’s agenda into high office, e.g., the naming of John Mouton as Special Assistant to the President. [Interim President] Dr. [Ed] Richardson seems to be running Auburn University like a business (using firings, threats and intimidations to keep folks in line) rather than as an academic institution. For instance, faculty cannot write columns for the AU Report that are critical of the administration.

Furthermore, the Auburn AAUP wrote,

Dr. Richardson has told the Senate and AAUP that the joke going around campus is that a trip to his office is sure termination. For a number of people who have been fired during their lunch hour (Bob Lowry), had their e-mail privileges yanked before they could return to their offices (Betty DeMent) and been told they cannot pack up their things in their office unless escorted (E.E.O.C. officer, Janet Saunders), it is no joke. In most cases, a clear connection between their public attitude toward the Board and its “sacred cows” and their termination can be drawn, though Dr. Richardson publicly calls their dismissals a result of cost-cutting or removing “deadwood.”

The letter went on to list many other “troubling dismissals.”

At LSU, Jindal and his Board of Supervisors have famously micromanaged the Baton Rouge campus for years.

As the Chronicle of Higher Education reported in May:

. . . board members who tried to save [former LSU System President] Mr. [John] Lombardi’s job describe a pattern of micromanagement by Mr. Jindal’s administration. One board member says that the Republican governor’s staff tried to strong-arm Mr. Lombardi into firing people, and others note Mr. Jindal’s undisputed influence on the appointment of one of his campaign fund raisers to a powerful university medical board.

And there’s another interesting similarity to Auburn’s situation.

Auburn’s board ran afoul of SACS for repeatedly violating Alabama’s open meetings law, something the LSU Board did recently when it approved in October, without prior notice, a plan to merge the LSU system president and Baton Rouge campus chancellor’s jobs.

That decision was placed on hold after the Louisiana Attorney General’s Office questioned “whether the board followed proper protocol by advertising in advance the intent to vote on the consolidation for a sufficient amount of time.”

So, tell me, does it appear that SACS takes issues like governance and open meetings seriously? It does, indeed. And it’s not just SACS that cares about these matters.

Consider, for example, an advisory released in late September by the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges (AGB) that should be required reading for anyone concerned about Jindal’s iron-fisted control of LSU.

Of particular interest was this statement in the advisory by Richard D. Legon, AGB president: “Boards should not cede their authority to any self-serving political, economic, or personal interest external to the institution.” The AGB statement focused on four basic principles, organized around key governance themes. According to AGB, boards should:

  • Preserve institutional independence and autonomy.
  • Demonstrate board independence to govern as established in charter, state law, or constitution.
  • Keep academic freedom central and be the standard bearer for the due-process protection of faculty, staff, and students.
  • Assure institutional accountability to the public interest.

So, you may ask, if LSU is no longer accredited by some organization headquartered in Georgia, that won’t affect the value of a LSU degree, will it?

The answer, sadly, is that losing accreditation is the academic equivalent of a nuclear explosion on your campus. Losing accreditation could mean that LSU would lose federal funding. Students would become ineligible for federal financial aid. Students graduating from LSU might not be able to gain admission other graduate schools. The university’s reputation would be ruined. Faculty recruiting would be severely hampered, if not permanently crippled.

Jindal and his cronies are having quite the time these days, running LSU to their pleasure. And once it all comes crashing down – because of their draconian budget cuts or the loss of the school’s accreditation – Jindal and his pals will be on the presidential campaign trail or holding cushy jobs in some Washington, D.C., consulting firm.

Meanwhile, the students, and the hundreds of faculty and staff who have worked so hard to create a fine university, will be left behind to pick up the shattered pieces.

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3 Responses to Could LSU’s accreditation be at risk? Look to Auburn

  1. Not in this for an argument. I agree with most says:

    You site the AGB advisory, but didn’t the AGB develop the proposed implementation plan for the merger?


    • Robert Mann says:

      I have no beef with the reorganization plan which, as you note, was developed by AGB. Seems to be a good idea. My problem is with the manner it was approved by the Board, hurriedly and without public comment. It was, to me, an example of the Board doing the right thing in the worst way.


  2. Pingback: LSU’s fate? University of VA gets “warning” from accrediting body over failed firing of president « Something Like the Truth

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