Education Investigations

If the University of Louisville lost its accreditation, it would likely shut down — or at least cease to exist as you know it.

Only the wealthiest students would remain because unaccredited institutions don’t get Pell grants and federal student loans. An exodus of talented faculty would likely follow as enrollment dropped. Card Nation might become just a memory, too, since the NCAA’s rules allow only accredited schools to compete.

Since the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges put U of L on probation last week, university and government leaders downplayed the risk.

Though unlikely, it’s still a dire possibility. Because the consequences are so severe, accreditation agencies rarely pull their credentials unless a college is already nearing closure. But experts say it would be a mistake to assume the measure is a hollow threat.

“Probation means you are at risk of losing your accreditation,” said Antoinette Flores, a policy analyst at Center for American Progress who researches higher education. “But it’s really to get the college and the state to fall in line and follow the rules.”

In this case, the accrediting agency is seeking to wrangle Gov. Matt Bevin. The association notified U of L Tuesday of a one-year probation that could extend to two years while the school addresses governance problems, which center on Bevin’s use of “undue political influence” when he sought to restructure U of L’s leadership.

Bevin disbanded and reconstituted the school’s board of trustees in June and at the same time announced President James Ramsey would resign. The accrediting agency took issue with those moves, saying they violated agency standards meant to ensure schools are free from outside political pressure or “undue influence.”

Following the announcement, Bevin’s office said that U of L’s accreditation was not at risk, “nor will it ever be at risk because of any action taken by Gov. Bevin.”

(Read KyCIR’s coverage of the University of Louisville)

Flores’ research shows that the regional accrediting agency that sanctioned U of L put just 4 percent of its schools on probation in a five-year period. In that same time frame, the agency revoked accreditation for three colleges, Flores said, but all were already nearing closure.

Since shuttering a college is rarely in anyone’s best interest, Flores added, public pressure can be more powerful than a scolding.

“I think it really comes down to students themselves … whose voices need to be heard in this conversation,” she said.

Students throughout Kentucky are pushing back against Bevin on social media to support U of L’s students, said Aaron Vance, a U of L senior and president of the student government association.

But Vance said the students are worried about their own institutions too, fearing Bevin or legislators could similarly put their colleges in jeopardy.

“Changing a board like this really does set a very negative precedent as far as insulating the institution from political interference,” he said.

A judge rejected Bevin’s attempt to reconstruct the U of L board in September, but the governor’s office appealed the ruling. The state legislature, now a Republican majority, could also ratify Bevin’s attempted board reconstruction in the upcoming legislative session.

Such a move is unlikely to improve the accreditation issue, according to Patty Cormier, president emerita of Longwood University in Virginia and a higher education consultant. Cormier testified for attorney general Andy Beshear’s office when it alleged that Bevin’s actions could harm U of L’s accreditation.

“What (the accrediting agency) expects is that there’s not excess pressure placed on that institution in any way, shape or form from someone who is not sitting on the board,” Cormier said.

Even if it’s unlikely, Vance said students are now beginning to worry seriously about the value of their degrees — and U of L’s future.

“This is a really high-stakes game of chicken,” Vance said.

Kate Howard can be reached at khoward@kycir.org and (502) 814.6546. 

Disclosures: In 2015, the University of Louisville, which for years has donated to Louisville Public Media, earmarked $3,000 to KyCIR as part of a larger LPM donation. University board member Stephen Campbell and former member Sandra Frazier have donated.

Kate Howard is a veteran investigative reporter specializing in government accountability and higher education issues.