LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — On the day he was named interim president of the University of Louisville in January, Dr. Greg Postel was asked about his top priorities in the job.
At the time the university faced a budget shortfall, an exodus of top leaders, the breakdown of a partnership to manage its downtown hospital and looming NCAA penalties from a prostitution scandal in its basketball program.
The first priority Postel mentioned, however, was getting U of L off probation with its accrediting agency, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, known widely as SACS.
Of all the issues U of L has faced since the forced departure of former President James Ramsey in 2016, none is more serious than the threat to its accreditation, which is the lifeblood of any university.
The value of U of L’s degrees hinges on accreditation, as does as the school’s ability to accept federal student loan money, a crucial source of revenue.
SACS placed U of L on probation — the most serious sanction short of revoking accreditation – in December.
This week, U of L officials will finally get the chance to convince the agency to remove that blemish.
A group of six administrators from other universities, led by University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan, will visit U of L starting Tuesday to interview university officials.
SACS requires the in-person visit to verify hundreds of pages of documentation U of L has submitted to show how the university complies with the agency’s standards.
“It’s making sure what they are saying in writing is consistent with what’s actually happening on the ground,” said Marty Smith Sharpe, a former university administrator who now runs a consulting business helping institutions with accreditation.
If all goes as planned, SACS’ board will remove U of L from probation in December following a favorable recommendation from Sullivan’s group.
If the SACS board decides not to revoke U of L’s accreditation, the university would have another six months – a year at most – to resolve the issues before losing its accredited status.
“The thing that’s really important to understand the due process SACS provides allows a lot of time for institution to make changes and to bring their institution into alignment,” Sharpe said.
Postel said Friday that U of L officials have done “absolutely everything we can to prepare” for the three-day visit and that the university has adequately addressed all nine issues SACS has raised.
“How that all plays out at the time of the interviews and so forth, we’ll see,” Postel told the board of trustees on Friday. “But we do not believe that we have anything to explain. We believe that everything they have asked us has been answered in a detailed manner.”
The probation was first prompted by Gov. Matt Bevin’s attempt in June 2016 to unilaterally dismiss the university’s board of trustees.
At the time, the board was divided over support for Ramsey, leading to quarreling at meetings. Bevin said he wanted to start over with a group of “more serious” people.
SACS has since added other issues – including the university’s lack of permanent leaders, control of its finances and its relationship with the troubled U of L Foundation – to its list of potential problems.
While the university remains accredited, simply having its status in jeopardy may have already damaged the institution.
U of L’s enrollment is down about 2 percent this semester compared to year earlier, primarily because fewer undergraduates enrolled than expected.
But in an interview Friday, Postel said the enrollment dip is likely a normal fluctuation rather than an indication that students are steering clear of U of L.
“We have tried to stress all along that none of the issues (SACS) have asked us about have anything to do with the quality of education, or the quality of research or patient care or the curriculum,” he said. “These are all administrative issues. And so that’s the approach we’ve taken. We’ve cleaned up all the loose ends. We’ve documented everything, and it’s important to get it behind us.”
Sharpe added that so far, the agency has only taken the fatal step of revoking accreditation from small, private colleges that were already failing due to financial issues.
Belle Wheelan, president of the Decatur, Georgia-based SACS Commission on Colleges, said in an interview that it’s “pretty much true” the agency has only pulled accreditation from small schools. But that doesn’t mean U of L can rest easy, she said.
“It can happen,” Wheelan said. “It’s not the size of the institution. It’s much more, whether or not they are in compliance with our standards.”
Wheelan added that “people were shocked” when the agency placed the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill on probation in 2015 due to an athletics-academics scandal. UNC’s probation was relieved last year.
In addition to meeting with university leaders, the SACS group will also interview Bevin, whose ill-fated attempt to “reorganize” U of L’s board triggered the probation.
The courts blocked Bevin’s executive orders shrinking the board from 20 members to 13 and removing all its members.
Earlier this year, Republican-controlled state legislature then changed the law establishing U of L’s board, effectively implementing the reforms Bevin wanted and allowing him to appoint a fresh set of trustees.
The legislature also passed a law spelling out situations in which a governor can remove an entire board of any of the state’s universities and giving the Senate power to confirm the governor’s trustee appointments.
U of L officials say the legislative changes should satisfy SACS’ requirement that board members be independent and removed only for cause and by a “fair process.”
In January, Wheelan told WDRB that the agency just wants to ensure that board members are free to act independently without risk of losing their seats based on political whims.
“There has to be a process, OK? Just a governor saying, ‘you’re out,’ is not a process,” she said at the time. “It’s got to be a fair process, and there has to be legitimate reasons for the dismissal.”