History of Higher Education (Part 2)

The fifth wave is breaking on global shores. “The age of the Internet and other new media forms is giving rise to a new wave of institution building, right before our eyes . . . . Ours is an extraordinary moment in history” (Cox 2000, p. 17). What is it we may expect to observe and experience among the phenomena of this new era? Among the main indicia of this new wave are the following:
Some observers predict a shakeout of weaker institutions as the current expansion leads inevitably to a concomitant contraction. Others have noted the persistence of even the weakest among first-wave colleges, as the following article illustrates.
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The Mice That Roar: Small, Sectarian Colleges Resist
Efforts to Extinguish Them
By Jim Castagnera
The Greentree Gazette, May 2007
I first met Jim Noseworthy early in the present decade at a workshop on serving disabled students.  The program was put on by the University of New Hampshire’s extension division at a hotel outside Washington, D.C.  Serendipity put the Doctor of Ministry, whose prominent proboscis fits his surname, at the same table as I.  We lunched together and hit it off, and after that kept in sporadic contact.
In August 2003, after sharing a recent op-ed piece of mine with Jim, he wrote back to me, “I have left the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry and now serve as president of United Methodist-related Hiwasee College in Madisonville, Tennessee.”  His missive on Hiwassee College stationery continued, “I moved in February to a situation which is both challenging and delightful.  I am glad to be back on campus and working with such marvelous individuals as we shape the future of this two-year college.”
If the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools gets its way, Hiwassee College has no future.
SACS’s Commission on Colleges is the accrediting body for higher education institutions in 11 southern states, including Tennessee.  Senior Fellow Jon Fuller of the National Association of Colleges and Universities describes SACS as “the most rigid and bureaucratic of the six national accrediting organizations.”  He adds that SACS has a tough task, because, “The South has more fragile institutions as a percentage of its higher education stock than any other region of the country.”
Absent the SACS imprimatur a college is cut off from federal financial aid funds.  For a college like Hiwassee, whose fewer-than-500 rural students almost all rely on substantial financial aid, such a sanction is fatal.  SACS, however, is finding that Hiwassee is hard to kill.
Hiwassee, which awards associate degrees, was first accredited by SACS in 1958.  That accreditation was confirmed most recently in 2000.  The Reaffirmation Committee noted that at the millennium Hiwassee had many “financial challenges.”  The committee’s report cited deferred maintenance, projected-revenue shortfalls, and inter-fund borrowing among those “challenges.”  SACS required a follow-up report.  When that document failed to meet the accreditor’s criteria, Hiwassee was issued a warning and required to submit yet another 12-month status report.  In December 2002, following review of this second report, SACS placed Hiwassee on probation.  The beleaguered college submitted its third report in December 2003, Meanwhile, a so-called Special Committee conducted a site visit to the Monroe County campus.
The college’s accreditation crisis came to a head on January 16, 2004, the date on a SACS letter which informed the Reverend Noseworthy and his staff, “With its upcoming review in December 2004, your institution will have exhausted its probationary status and its period of continued accreditation for good cause.  At that time, the institution must be determined to be in compliance with all of the Principles of Accreditation or be removed from membership.”  Yet another Special Committee visited Hiwassee in mid-October 2004.  The committee’s report was damning.  On December 4th Hiwassee defended itself at a Compliance Committee meeting, but the committee voted to remove accreditation.  On February 24, 2005, an Appeals Committee affirmed academic capital punishment for Hiwassee.
However, reports of Hiwassee’s demise proved premature.  The college took its case to the federal courts.  On March 22, 2005, Judge Thomas Vartan of the U.S. District Court for Eastern Tennessee issued a temporary restraining order, restoring Hiwassee’s accreditation.  “This is good news,” Rev. Noseworthy modestly understated this early victory.  The case then was transferred to the federal court for Northern Georgia, home to SACS headquarters.
On February 5, 2007, following extensive pre-trial discovery and a hearing, Senior District Judge Owen Forrester issued his ruling.  In many aspects his honor’s 18-page decision goes against Hiwassee.  For example, he rejects the college’s contention that “the entanglement between the (U.S.) Department of Education and SACS in its role as an accrediting agency under the Higher Education Act” makes SACS a “state actor” subject to the 14th Amendment’s “due process” clause.  On the other hand, Judge Forrester finds that SACS must be held to common-law principles of fair play.
Having so held, his honor goes on to conclude that a conflict of interest was created when Appeals Committee member Ann McNut suffered a family emergency and was replaced by Jimmy Goodson, a voting member of the Commission on Colleges.  Since he had already voted to withdraw Hiwassee’s accreditation, ruled Judge Forrester, “Mr. Goodson did have a conflict of interest and should not have served on the appeals panel.”
Comments President Noseworthy, “We have prevailed on one of the several issues of our case.”  However, Judge Forrester found in favor of SACS on many another issue.  More ominous is the district judge’s observation that “it is significant to the court that Hiwassee has never front-on challenged the ultimate decision of SACS that Hiwassee failed to come into compliance….” This bit of dicta may prefigure the ultimate outcome of the case, which remains pending as this article is written.  On March 16th, Jim Noseworthy wrote to me, “We are awaiting additional action by the judge in the case….” With characteristic aplomb, reminiscent of his 2003 letter, he added, “Hiwassee is a great place to be!”
Hiwassee College is not the only great little place under fire for financial instability.  SACS has also been gunning for Edward Waters College in Jacksonville.  In 2005 the historically black institution, like Hiwassee, won an injunction in federal court, staving off implementation of the accrediting agency’s decision to withdraw recognition.  News photos depicted some of the school’s 900 students marching with signs that said, “EWC must survive!”  Fuller of NAICU commented, “A new chapter is opened.  It’s going to require accreditors to question some of their procedures.”
Elsewhere it’s not accreditors but donors who are putting pressure on the Lilliputians of our industry to reform or perish.  For instance recent reports out of Omaha, Nebraska, tell of Howard L. Hawks, a major donor to both Midland Lutheran College and nearby Dana College, who has advised the two tiny schools to merge duplicative academic and administrative functions or lose his support.
These developments beg the question, “Do such small-enrollment, under-endowed private colleges have a place in the highly competitive, globalized higher education arena?”  I asked that question of NAICU’s Jon Fuller.  He explained that from Eastern Kentucky’s Pikesville College to New Jersey’s Bloomfield College, these small schools serve local communities “where people grow up with a limited sense of what’s possible.”  In other words, absent the Bloomfields, Pikevilles, and Hiwassees, many of these minority and/or rural youngsters would never go to college.
Fuller adds that both federal and accreditation standards use financial stability as a place-holder for quality education, since the latter is difficult to measure.  “The fed doesn’t want to have to clean up if a college closes suddenly.  What isn’t considered is that many of these schools have been around 100 or 150 years, and I doubt they were ever any less fragile than they are today.  Yet they always have a hard time meeting such standards.”
I suggested to Fuller that the pluckiness of these colleges reminds me of the tiny nation in the Peter Sellers film, “The Mouse that Roared.”  He retorted, “They remind me of bumble bees.  Measure the wingspan and the bumble bee shouldn’t be able to fly.  Since it does fly, there must be other factors we are failing to measure.”
With regard to the Hiwassees of our world, Fuller cited “deep loyalty” from alumni and “faith communities,” a willingness to sacrifice on the parts of administrators, faculty and even students, and — perhaps most significant where the likes of Jim Noseworthy and Hiwassee are concerned —- “an ethic which says, attend to the needs of today and somehow tomorrow will take care of itself.”
Concludes Fuller, “At a time when the Spellings Commission is concerned with degree completion and eight Asian and European nations boast higher percentages of college graduates than the U.S., it’s hard to understand why anyone would want to mess with these colleges.”
Source:  The Greentree Gazette, May 2007 (Reprinted with permission of the Greentree Gazette: The Business Magazine of Higher Education.)

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