UNC Squabble Highlights ‘Woke’ Grip on Accrediting Agencies

In 2021, a Christian university halted its social work program because of demands from its accrediting agency.

William Yeung via Wikimedia Commons
Seal of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. William Yeung via Wikimedia Commons

Liberal administrators at universities across America and the accrediting bodies that support them are finding themselves under increasing scrutiny from conservative legislators keen on reining in the excesses of the diversity, inclusion, and other “equity” bureaucracies that have taken over the academies. 

The latest tussle is at the University North Carolina, where a Republican congressional delegation is castigating the school’s accrediting agency for threatening its board of trustees after it approved a plan for a new school rooted in values of “full freedom of expression, intellectual diversity, and open inquiry.”

In January, the school’s board of trustees voted to accelerate a plan to form a School of Civic Life and Leadership — key components of which would be free speech and faculty viewpoint diversity. 

In a recent Wall Street Journal article, board members described curricular objectives at the new school as shattering the ordinary “political constraints on what can be taught in university classes.”

The plan, however, came under fire almost immediately from the school’s accrediting agency, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on College, which is based in Georgia.

The accrediting body’s president, Belle Wheelan, threatened to censure the university’s board to “get them to change” their plan in a presentation reported by the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal. Ms. Wheelan previously served as Virginia’s secretary of education under a former Democratic governor, Mark Warner. 

“UNC-Chapel Hill’s board is going to get a letter because of a news article that came out that said that the board, without input from the administration or faculty, had decided they were going to put in this new curriculum offering,” Ms. Wheelan said. “Explain that — because that’s kind of not the way we do business.”

“We’re gonna see the committee and talk to them and help them understand it, and either get them to change it, or the institution will be on warning,” she threatened. Ms. Wheelan’s remarks came in a meeting convened by a gubernatorial commission on “the governance of public universities in North Carolina.”

Some see the commission at which Ms. Wheelan spoke as a ploy by North Carolina’s Democratic governor to undermine the authority of the Republican legislature in appointing members to the UNC board. No letter or warning has yet been issued to UNC from the accrediting body.

This week, a group of North Carolina’s congressional delegation expressed concern that Ms. Wheelan’s remarks “appear to put the institution on warning before fully understanding the Board’s action.”

What may seem like a mere meltdown between bureaucrats and lawmakers represents a real threat to the students who attend these universities. Students are ineligible for federal loans if they attend unaccredited institutions, and they may face other obstacles when seeking to transfer, apply to graduate institutions, or practice in their fields of study.

The past few years have proved contentious for accrediting agencies as culture wars creep into the educational sector. Encouraged by the accrediting bodies, liberal institutions have sought to make mandatory instruction of sensitive cultural topics — race, gender, and sexuality — taught from a liberal point of view.

The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, for example, encourages member organizations to “decolonize” their curricula and diversify their reading lists to include non-Western texts. The American Bar Association, which has accredited nearly 200 law schools, recently scrapped a plan that would have imposed racial quotas as a diversity guarantee measure on law schools, but only after public pressure.

In 2021, Cairn University in eastern Pennsylvania halted its social work program in part because of demands from its accrediting agency, the Council on Social Work Education. The school said the agency’s curricular requirements conflicted with its Christian mission.

“CSWE’s proposed standards prescribed an approach to social issues … that Cairn deemed inconsistent with its own core beliefs,” the university’s president, Todd Williams, wrote a year later. “Thus, the university withdrew from CSWE and its accreditation, which is, of course, voluntary.”

Withdrawing from accreditation, for Cairn, was equivalent to nuking its social work program. Without accreditation, it could not promise its graduates social work licenses upon graduation.

North Carolina’s congressional representation is not the only group of legislators taking accreditors to task. The political leanings of the higher-ed overseers have led to increasing hostility between Republican politicians and accrediting bodies.

Governor DeSantis, a harsh critic of the political leanings of universities in Florida, also has tried to curb the power of accreditors. His Stop WOKE Act, in addition to stifling diversity training and critical race theory instruction, requires universities to change accreditation agencies at least every 10 years.

Before signing the bill into law, Mr. DeSantis said the “self-anointed” accrediting bodies hold an “inordinate amount of power” — even power over legislators, as the UNC debate illustrates.

In 2015, Senator Lee of Utah and Mr. DeSantis, when he was a member of Congress, introduced legislation to strip the Department of Education of its monopoly on conferring power to accreditors, which the two men said enabled a “higher-ed cartel.” They instead proposed allowing states to develop independent accreditation agencies.

The public schools in the Sunshine State are currently accredited by the same agency fighting with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with Ms. Wheelan at the helm.

This is not the first time UNC-Chapel Hill has found itself in a tug-of-war between its conservative and liberal stakeholders. 

The most contentious case in recent history was that of a prominent statue of a Confederate soldier, known as Silent Sam, on its quad. A former chancellor of the University of North Carolina, Carol Folt, sought to dismantle the statue, but was blocked from doing so by a 2015 state ordinance preventing the removal of Confederate monuments. 

Ms. Folt clashed with the Board of Governors over the statue before it was toppled by student protestors in 2018 — a move that would eventually result in Ms. Folt’s resignation.

In 2017, the Board of Governors prohibited the law school’s Center for Civil Rights from providing legal counsel — in many instances, to clients who were facing the state.

The university faced a 2021 lawsuit after denying tenure to the intellectual mother of the 1619 Project, Nikole Hannah-Jones — a decision later reversed. Ms. Hannah-Jones sued the school, and the parties settled on an agreement that would boost diversity initiatives on campus.

The New York Sun

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