VSU placed on warning by accrediting agency

Jeremy Lazarus | 6/19/2015, 11:34 a.m.
Virginia State University, which has been tussling with the state auditor over its financial reporting, now has taken a slap ...
Dr. Wheelan

Virginia State University, which has been tussling with the state auditor over its financial reporting, now has taken a slap from the regional group that accredits the historic Petersburg area school.

The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools announced last week that VSU has been placed on warning, a sanction imposed for failing to provide evidence it was in compliance with all of the group’s standards.

SACS’ accreditation is needed for VSU students to receive federal grants and loans to help cover tuition. A warning is the lightest sanction and does not affect accreditation or student financial aid.

However, VSU must correct the problems SACS noted to avoid more serious sanctions such as those Norfolk State University is dealing with. NSU is on a one-year probation and could lose its accreditation if SACS finds that the university continues to fail in meeting standards.

To get rid of the warning, VSU has been directed to report within three months on corrections it has made on issues involving faculty numbers, financial aid and students’ ability to be heard when they have complaints. If VSU complies, the board would lift the warning at its December meeting.

“We require every institution we accredit to be in compliance with all of our standards at all times,” Dr. Belle Wheelan, president of the SACS Commission on Colleges, said in a telephone interview June 11.

In the case of VSU, the board found the university “was out of compliance with five standards.”

The most notable problem, Dr. Wheelan said, was VSU’s failure to provide evidence that “the number of full-time faculty members is adequate to support the mission of the institution and to ensure the quality and integrity of each of its academic programs.”

“That’s a core standard,” she said, meaning it is critical for VSU to show it is in compliance.

In addition, the board found VSU did not show that it was adequately coordinating academic programs and did not provide evidence that federal financial aid programs had been properly audited and that it was in compliance with its program responsibilities.

VSU also was dinged for failing to show it has “adequate procedures for addressing written student complaints and that it follows those procedures when resolving student complaints.”

The warning was issued after the board of the SACS Commission on Colleges reviewed the detailed fifth-year report on accreditation that VSU interim President Pamela V. Hammond submitted April 1 and found it lacking.

The warning came as a shock to the VSU Board of Visitors. Outgoing board member Terone B. Green said Dr. Hammond never shared the report with the board before it was submitted. He also was irritated that Dr. Hammond issued a statement to media outlets about SACS’ action three hours before she notified board members.

“We’re always treated like an afterthought,” he said, noting that Dr. Hammond is following in the footsteps of past administrations in her dealings with the board. Dr. Hammond is competing to win the job permanently.

Still, there is no question that the SACS warning represents a significant stumble.

Schools are accredited for 10 years and “halfway through that cycle, we ask institutions to report that they are in compliance with the 17 standards that we regard as most important,” Dr. Wheelan said.

However, Dr. Wheelan said the fact the board set such a short time period for VSU to make corrections indicates that the board believes “the situation can be resolved fairly quickly.”