By Sarah Kelley and Joe Sonka
The University of Louisville has been placed on probation by its accrediting agency amid concerns over the school’s governance.
The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools — UofL’s accrediting body — placed the school on a one-year probation, with the potential for a one-year extension of that probationary status. The move comes after Gov. Matt Bevin abolished the UofL Board of Trustees and attempted to reorganize it with new members via executive order. The governor’s shakeup sparked concerns that the school’s accreditation was at risk, and in September, a judge issued a final ruling that blocked Bevin’s reorganization and reinstated the original board.
“It is important to note that the commission’s decision does not reflect on the quality of our curriculum or our core academic strengths,” UofL Acting President Neville Pinto said in a news release Tuesday. “It is focused entirely on issues related to governance of the institution. Probationary status will have no impact on degrees, federal funding for student financial aid or research grants awarded to faculty.”
Specifically, the university pointed out in its news release that the probation is based on Board of Trustee membership and selection; evaluation of the university president; external influence; and Board of Trustee dismissal.
“It should be emphasized that the University of Louisville still is an accredited institution,” Pinto added. “We have strong academic and research programs and a great track record of demonstrating compliance in all areas of review by SACS. We will do all in our power to address the concerns that have been raised.”
Upon learning of UofL’s probation, Attorney General Andy Beshear issued a scathing rebuke of Bevin’s actions:
“In his pursuit of absolute authority, Gov. Bevin has inflicted great and substantial harm to one of our public universities. My office, U of L faculty, a circuit judge and even the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools advised the governor about the serious ramifications that could result from his reckless actions. Indeed, on Aug. 18, SACS specifically told U of L that the governor’s actions and executive orders appeared to move the university ‘out of compliance.’ The violations outlined in that letter by SACS are the very same standards and violations included in U of L’s announcement today. The governor has dug a very big hole and has only one choice – rescind his executive order, dismiss his appeal and announce he will not support legislation that would impact the university’s governance. Otherwise, he will bury the University of Louisville in that hole.”
However, Gov. Bevin’s office dismissed any concerns over the university’s accreditation. In a statement, the governor’s spokeswoman, Amanda Stamper, said: “UofL’s accreditation is not at risk, nor will it ever be at risk because of any action taken by Gov. Bevin. Anyone who argues otherwise does not have UofL’s best interest at heart.”
At a press conference Tuesday afternoon, Pinto said the probation is “something that’s very disappointing to us. It’s not a good place to be. But we are where we are now, and we need to get it resolved.” However, the acting president repeatedly emphasized that UofL remains accredited for now, and the probation does not affect student degrees, financial aid or research grants.
Pinto also declined to say that UofL’s accreditation is at risk of being dropped, as “our goal is to resolve this compliance issue, and I fully expect that we will be accredited by the fall of 2017, without any sanctions. Right now all we have is a sanction.” Asked if the accreditation would be at risk if those issues aren’t corrected, he replied “our intention is to get it corrected.”
However, Pinto says the accrediting body has not yet provided its official notification of what specific actions would need to be taken to lift the sanction, or who would need to take those steps. Considering that the issues cited by SACS involve the governor’s executive actions, the required steps may be out of the university’s hands, relying on actions from the state government.
Asked if the state legislature ratifying Bevin’s executive orders next year — as Bevin has stated will happen — would put the university back into compliance with SACS, Pinto said he did not know, but “we are always willing to work on any aspect of the issue that requires us to collaborate with our partners across the state.”
“I have full confidence in the fact that this is very important to the state legislators, and the governor’s office wants a strong University of Louisville, and they will work with us to remove those sanctions,” said Pinto.
Asked how he was so confident that these issues will be resolved considering the present uncertainty, Pinto said, “Because the issue is so important. To everybody.”