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SACS Decision Information

Last Updated: December 10, 2013

Message regarding University accreditation

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Dear Faculty, Staff and Students:

As you may recall, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC) placed the University of Virginia on “warning” in December 2012 for a period of one year, following its determination that U.Va. was not in compliance with Core Requirement 2.2 regarding board governance and Comprehensive Standard 3.7.5 regarding faculty role in governance of the organization’s Principles of Accreditation.

I am pleased to inform members of our community that the SACSCOC Board of Trustees voted to remove the University from “warning” status.  The decision was announced at the organization’s annual meeting in Atlanta earlier today.

The University community should be pleased with the outcome of the commission’s thorough review.  While the warning designation did not question the quality of our academic programs or affect our ability to receive financial aid, unblemished accreditation remains an important stamp of approval on the integrity of the institution.

We have very important work ahead of us as we begin to implement key initiatives associated with the University’s five-year strategic plan.  I look forward to partnering with you as we collectively advance the mission of this great institution.

Very truly yours,

Teresa A. Sullivan
President

Statement on SACS Decision

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

To the University community:

As you know, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC) has been reviewing governance issues at the University since President Teresa A. Sullivan’s resignation and subsequent reinstatement this past summer. SACSCOC announced today that it has placed the University of Virginia “on warning” for one year and will send a visiting team to Grounds in early 2013.

This action does not imply any criticism of the University’s academic quality and programs, nor does it affect the institution’s ability to receive federal aid, including financial aid and sponsored research.

According to SACSCOC, “An institution may be placed on Warning or Probation for noncompliance with any of the Core Requirements or significant noncompliance with the Comprehensive Standards. Additionally, an institution may be placed on Warning for failure to make timely and significant progress toward correcting the deficiencies that led to the finding of noncompliance with any of the Principles of Accreditation. An institution may also be placed on Warning for failure to comply with Commission policies and procedures, including failure to provide requested information in a timely manner. The maximum total time during one monitoring period that an institution may be on Warning is two years.”

The SACSCOC Board of Trustees determined that the University was not in compliance with Core Requirement 2.2 regarding board governance and Comprehensive Standard 3.7.5 regarding Faculty Role in Governance of the organization’s Principles of Accreditation.

The University of Virginia acknowledges the decision of the Board of Trustees of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC). While the decision is disappointing, the University of Virginia pledges to work diligently to address the concerns cited by the commission. For the past several months and in the spirit of continuous improvement, the Board of Visitors and University leadership have been proactively working together to review governance practices and policies to ensure the highest level of transparency, accountability and responsiveness to all those it serves.

Last month, the Board adopted revisions to the Board of Visitors Manual to provide clarity on procedures for electing and removing presidents, set up comprehensive guidelines for evaluating a president’s performance, and provide more direct involvement by faculty in board deliberations.

The Board of Visitors and University leadership will continue to gather research and identify best practices from a variety of sources – including tapping outside experts and resources – so that the University may become a model for higher education governance in the commonwealth and nation.

These are extraordinary times for the University of Virginia and for all of higher education. I appreciate the many ways in which our community of learning has come together these past months and I thank you for your ongoing support as we address the many opportunities and challenges facing higher education.

Sincerely,

John D. Simon
Executive Vice President and Provost

Background Information and Frequently Asked Questions Regarding the SACS Decision to Place the University of Virginia on Warning for One Year

On Dec. 10, 2012, the University of Virginia was placed on Warning by its accrediting agency following a review of governance issues linked to the summer’s resignation and reinstatement of President Teresa A. Sullivan.

The Board of Trustees of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC) determined that the University was not in compliance with two of the organization’s principles of accreditation – specifically, Core Requirement 2.2, regarding board governance, and Comprehensive Standard 3.7.5, regarding the faculty role in governance.

SACSCOC will send a special review team to University Grounds in fall 2013 to do further study regarding compliance. Their findings will be reviewed at the December SACSCOC Board of Trustees meeting.

SACSCOC is the recognized regional accrediting body in the 11 Southern states, including: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia, and in Latin America for those institutions of higher education – both public and private – that award associate, baccalaureate, master’s or doctoral degrees. The Commission’s Board of Trustees is charged with making decisions on the accreditation status of member institutions. Recognized by the U.S. Department of Education, it is a membership-based organization which the University of Virginia joined in 1904. Membership is formally voluntary, but as a practical matter, membership and accreditation is essential to the University.

Because there has been some misunderstanding about the role of SACSCOC and what constitutes a Warning, the following Q&A has been created to help explain the issues.

Q: What is accreditation?

A: As defined by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, accreditation “is intended to assure constituents and the public of the quality and integrity of higher education institutions and programs, and to help those institutions and programs improve.”

Q: Why is accreditation necessary?

A: Accreditation demonstrates, to the public and other stakeholders, that colleges and universities maintain a commitment to quality and continuous improvement in fulfilling their missions. Accreditation is essential to students, for access to various forms of federal financial aid, transfer of credit to other institutions of higher education, and recognition of their degrees. For faculty accreditation is necessary to access most research funding. As a practical matter, accreditation is essential to attract and retain students and faculty.

Q: What are The Principles of Accreditation?

A: The Principles of Accreditation (PDF) are the agreed-upon standards with which member institutions must comply. The Federal Government has delegated accreditation to a private body, and one might think of the principles as regulations. The standards govern a broad array of issues, including governance, financial resources, human resources, physical resources, the curriculum, athletics, and philanthropy, among others. Member universities must demonstrate compliance with the totality of the principles every 10 years. Every five years, they must demonstrate compliance with a subset of the principles. In between these routine compliance processes, should SACSCOC believe a university is out of compliance with one or more principles, it may require that university to provide information documenting its compliance.

Q: Why was the University sanctioned?

A: In response to the resignation and subsequent reinstatement of President Teresa A. Sullivan, SACSCOC required that the University document compliance with three principles – Principle 1.1 (Integrity), Core Requirement 2.2 (Governing Board), and Comprehensive Standard 3.7.5 (Faculty Role in Governance). After reviewing the response from the University’s Board of Visitors, the Board of Trustees of SACSCOC found the University non-compliant with Core Requirement 2.2 and Comprehensive Standard 3.7.5. In a recent press conference after the announcement, the president of SACSCOC cited concerns related to minority control of the board (Core Requirement 2.2) and policies surrounding faculty role in governance (Comprehensive Standard 3.7.5).

In January 2013, the University will receive formal notification of the finding from SACSCOC. This notification is expected to provide greater detail on the rationale of the SACSCOC Board of Trustees. In addition, a special review team will visit the University in 2013 to investigate the University’s non-compliance.

It should be noted that no violation was found with respect to Principle 1.1 (Integrity).

Q: Can you be more specific as to why SACSCOC issued this Warning?

A: In an Associated Press (AP) story from Dec. 11, reporting on the SACSCOC announcement to put the University on Warning, SACSCOC President Belle Wheelan said that SACSCOC believes the institution was not in compliance with a rule that a minority of governing board members can’t be in charge and another rule that institutions should have a policy that clearly identifies the faculty’s role in governance. In the AP report, Wheelan said the commission sent the school a letter in June saying it might be out of compliance, and the school’s governing board sent a response “that we didn’t feel sufficiently responded to our inquiry.”

She added that SACSCOC asked for additional information in October and she then took the issue to the SACSCOC board of trustees. “Based on the information we had received, they decided they needed to put the institution on Warning,” Wheelan said.

Wheelan said SACSCOC would decide next December whether to take further action. That could include continuing the Warning, putting the school on Probation, revoking its membership or removing the Warning.

Q: What does a sanction of Warning mean?

A: Warning is the lesser of two public sanctions applied to institutions found non-compliant with one or more of the principles. In the Policy on Sanctions, Denial of Reaffirmation, and Removal from Membership (PDF), SACSCOC defines Warning as:

“The less serious of the two sanctions, Warning is usually, but not necessarily, levied in the earlier stages of institutional review and often, but not necessarily, precedes Probation. It cannot, however, succeed Probation. An institution may be placed on Warning or Probation for noncompliance with any of the Core Requirements or significant noncompliance with the Comprehensive Standards. Additionally, an institution may be placed on Warning for failure to make timely and significant progress toward correcting the deficiencies that led to the finding of noncompliance with any of The principles of accreditation. An institution may also be placed on Warning for failure to comply with Commission policies and procedures, including failure to provide requested information in a timely manner. The maximum total time during one monitoring period that an institution may be on Warning is two years.”

Q: What is the duration of the Warning?

A: The University was placed on Warning for a period of 12 months. During this period, the University is expected to correct deficiencies or make satisfactory progress toward compliance. SACSCOC Board of Trustees will reconsider the sanction in December 2013.  A special committee will visit the institution in fall 2013. At that time, SACSCOC may remove the sanction, continue the sanction, elevate the sanction to Probation, or remove the University from membership.

Q: What are some of the changes that the Board of Visitors has already made regarding governance issues?

A: The Board this summer created the Special Committee on Governance and Engagement, charging it to review board governance policies. In November, the Board approved three new policies designed to promote greater accountability and transparency.

Revisions to the Board of Visitors Manual provide clarity on procedures for electing and removing presidents. Resolutions passed by the board also set up comprehensive guidelines for evaluating a president’s performance and provide for more direct involvement by faculty in board deliberations.

  1. Presidential election, appointment and removal: The board’s manual now stipulates that actions related to the employment status of a president will require a publicly noticed board meeting and a vote of the full Board of Visitors.

    The manual now states: “Appointment, removal, requested resignation, or amendment of the contract or terms of employment of the President may be accomplished only by vote of a majority (or, by statute, two-thirds in the case of removal) of the whole number of Visitors at a regular meeting, or special meeting called for this purpose.”

  2. Presidential evaluation process: The board also voted to institute quarterly evaluation meetings. The meetings provide an opportunity to “review progress on goals and established benchmarks, and to advise the president on current priorities of the Board.” Those involved in the quarterly reviews will provide input to the annual Presidential Assessment Committee and will measure specific progress made toward meeting benchmarks spelled out in the University’s strategic plan. The Quarterly Review Committee includes the vice rector and the chairs of the Educational Policy, Finance, and Advancement and Communications committees. The Presidential Assessment Committee includes the rector, vice rector, and the most recently retired-from-office former rector still on the board, or in the absence of such, a senior member of the board appointed by the rector.
  3. Shared governance: The board also unanimously approved a resolution to more closely involve the faculty in its work. The resolution authorizes the rector to consult with the president to appoint one non-voting consulting member from the faculty to each standing committee that doesn’t already have faculty representation.

At the time of the meeting, Helen Dragas, rector of the University, said: “We also understand the need for and believe in greater openness and accountability. We will continue gathering research and ideas from a variety of sources – including potentially tapping outside expert resources – so that the University may become a model for higher education governance in the commonwealth. We will be sure to clearly communicate this progress promptly to all interested entities, including SACS.”

Q: What impact could this attention have on the University’s reputation?

A: The University of Virginia has long enjoyed a strong reputation among peer institutions and in the public arena. It is well regarded for excellence in academics, the undergraduate experience, medical care, research, public service, sound fiscal management, and its top-ranked professional schools and graduate programs. In the past decade it has become known for its comprehensive financial aid program as well as for its commitment to expanding and enhancing both global education and arts programs.

While the events of the past summer and the recent Warning issued by SACSCOC have focused public and media attention on the University, these issues do not have an impact on the daily operations of the University. Students continue to receive an excellent education, faculty continue to conduct groundbreaking research and patients continue to receive world-class care.

Executive Vice President and Provost John Simon in his Dec. 12 statement to the community said the Warning was not intended as a criticism of the University’s academic quality and programs. Other leaders in higher education agree. In the Associated Press story, Molly Broad, the current president of the American Council on Education and former president of the University of North Carolina, was quoted as saying “the concern is over the university’s governance and really had nothing to do with the academic quality of the university. The Warning is a reminder that the university is a public trust and that the governance responsibilities are shared among the rectors, the president and the faculty. It should be taken seriously, but in my view it’s a temporary setback for the university and with the solid support across the campus, I believe will quickly be in U.Va.’s rearview mirror.”

The University continues on an even keel and, in the spirit of continuous improvement, is moving forward to address the critical issues that are facing not only U.Va., but all of higher education. This is being done in full partnership with the Board of Visitors.

Q: Does the sanction affect the student experience or academic programs?

A: No. The sanction was imposed due to governance-related issues. The sanction does not imply any criticism of the University’s academic quality or programs, nor will it impact the overall student experience to which University students are accustomed.

Q: Does the sanction affect the University’s eligibility for federal support?

A: No. The sanction does not affect the University’s eligibility to receive federal funding, including financial aid and sponsored research.

Q: Does the sanction impact the University of Virginia’s College at Wise?

A: No. The University of Virginia’s College at Wise is separately accredited by SACSCOC. While the University and the College at Wise share the same governing board, the sanction was imposed upon the University of Virginia, not the University of Virginia’s College at Wise.

Q: Will the SACSCOC decision impact the University’s triple-A bond ratings?

A: The three major credit agencies — Fitch, Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s —for nearly 10 years have given the University of Virginia their most coveted triple-A bond ratings. U.Va. and the University of Texas System are the only public universities to earn triple-A bond ratings from all three credit agencies. Both S&P and Fitch have reaffirmed the rating since the president’s reinstatement.

In announcing ratings each year, the agencies make note of certain factors that they look at when making their decisions. They include: the University’s status as a premier U.S. public university; undergraduate and graduate student demand; strong fiscal management; diversity of revenue; exceptional investment management by the University of Virginia Investment Management Company; considerable liquidity; solid financial resources; manageable debt burden; the presence and stability of the Medical Center; and the progress of the $3 billion capital campaign.

While the agencies have paid close attention to the recent decision by SACSCOC, we don’t believe that it will have an impact on future ratings. Our institutional financial operations continue under strong leadership and are considered to be extraordinarily healthy.