RALEIGH (September 28, 2023) – Last Thursday morning, HB8 in the NC General Assembly was titled “Computer Sci. Grad. Requirement.” It required high-school students to complete a computer science course to graduate, as it had since it was filed in January.1
But by the end of the day, as most of North Carolina was sifting through 1,400 pages of a new, $30 billion state budget, Sen. Michael Lee had slipped a provision from an unrelated bill into HB8 to require North Carolina colleges and universities to change accrediting agencies every cycle.2
It’s a shift that would impose an unnecessary burden and cost millions of dollars.
With the amendment from Lee, R-New Hanover, the bill passed both houses of the General Assembly, and it now rests on Gov. Roy Cooper’s desk.3 Cooper’s office says he is still reviewing the bill amidst a flurry of legislation that passed last week.
ACCREDITATION of colleges and universities might seem esoteric, but it is critical for institutions to receive federal financial aid, for example. Accreditation is an extensive, years-long review, and institutions are generally granted accreditation for eight to 10 years.
The legislation Lee inserted in the computer-science bill essentially replicates SB680, which was co-sponsored by Lee, Sen. Amy Galey and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger. It passed the Senate in May but did not advance in the House.4
It would require community colleges and public universities to change accrediting agencies after each accreditation cycle. But it allows that if an institution isn’t given “candidacy status” by a different regional agency at least three years before expiration of its accreditation, it can remain with the same agency.
As “regional” accreditation agencies, it lists six that include: the Higher Learning Commission, based in Chicago; the New England Commission on Higher Education, based in Massachusetts; the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, based in Redmond, Washington; and the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, based in California.5
It also includes language to let an institution sue anyone who makes a false statement to an accrediting agency.
THE BILL WAS FILED after Dr. Belle Wheelan, President of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges – which accredits colleges in 11 Southern states – made comments about the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees in February to Cooper’s bipartisan UNC Governance Commission.
Trustee leaders told The Wall Street Journal and Fox & Friends they had “created” a new School of Civic Life and Leadership, and that the school is intended to counter left-leaning faculty at UNC.6
UNC administrators and faculty said they were blindsided by the Board’s recommendation and noted that curriculum is normally developed by faculty members.
Wheelan agreed that creation of curriculum is the role of faculty – not trustees.
“The institutions hire faculty because they are the experts in the curriculum,” she told the Governance Commission. “That’s why we think new programs should come from the faculty…
“How come you’re in the curriculum when you have a faculty?”7
THE DISPUTE MIRRORS a backlash in Florida against Wheelan and SACSCOC led primarily by Gov. Ron DeSantis, where a state law passed last year requires 40 public colleges and universities to switch accreditors every 10 years.
The movement grew out of concerns raised by SACSCOC when a member of Florida’s Board of Governors was considered for president at Florida State University, and when the University of Florida initially tried to prevent three professors from testifying against the state in a case involving voting-rights restrictions.
“Frankly, I think we’ve suffered a little bit from a body who currently oversees accreditation who views the Florida system as captive, and the Florida universities as captive,” Florida Board of Governors vice chair Eric Silagy said in August 2022.
Andrew Gothard, president of the United Faculty of Florida, told Inside Higher Ed the change is onerous and unnecessary.
“We advocated strongly against this from the beginning. We are furious that Florida’s colleges and universities even have to deal with this,” he said.8
Florida’s State University System is overseen by the Florida Board of Governors, which received projections last year that the changes could cost its 12 state universities $11 million to $13 million a year.
Peter Ewell, president emeritus of the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, told Inside Higher Ed that changing accreditors will be laborious for staff who must learn new standards.
“It’s definitely a burden that is essentially imposed on the institution,” he said.9