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Date published: 1/1/2013
RICHMOND--A nonprofit group representing trustees and alumni from colleges around the country is seeking an investigation by the U.S. Department of Education into an accreditation agency's decision to put the University of Virginia on warning for its failed attempt to fire its president last summer.
The American Council of Trustees and Alumni contends the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools' Commission on Colleges overstepped its role as an accrediting agency and had no basis for the warning it issued over the school's messy bid to oust Teresa Sullivan, its first woman president.
"We believe there is substantial reason to believe that the accreditor has inappropriately become involved in a power struggle between the president, faculty, and the board of trustees and urge you to investigate," Anne D. Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, wrote to Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Kay W. Gilcher, director of the accreditation division at the U.S. Department of Education. The letter was dated Dec. 31.
The accrediting commission did not immediately respond Monday to telephone messages and emails seeking comment.
The U.Va. warning was issued Dec. 11 by the accreditation agency based on governance issues. It concluded that a minority of board members attempted to cast out Sullivan and that faculty leaders were not consulted on or alerted to the decision. The commission plans to send a team to U.Va. to determine whether the university was out of compliance with association rules.
Warning notices are fairly common in higher education, although less so at prominent institutions such as U.Va. They typically are resolved without punishment.
U.Va.s' governing board stunned the campus the weekend of June 10 when it announced that Sullivan would be leaving the university. The board cast it initially as a mutually agreed separation.
The announcement, however, triggered an outcry over the lack of explanation, leading to two weeks of protests, resignations and reneged donations until officials reinstated Sullivan on June 26.
Rector Helen Dragas defended the decision to oust Sullivan, arguing the university wasn't acting quickly to address state and federal funding reductions, the emergence of online education and other issues.
In her letter to DOE, Neal said the warning amounts to a "blatant intrusion" into the governance of U.Va. established originally by founder Thomas Jefferson and codified by the Virginia General Assembly.