An Open Letter to Belle S. Wheelan, President of SACSCOC

Peter Wood

Editor's Note: This letter is made public to further pressure the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC) to ensure fair and equal treatment of its institutions' faculty, staff, and students. It is part of a broader NAS effort to counter cancel culture in higher education.

We do not urge readers who are unacquainted with the cases to rush forward with emails, letters, or posts. Rather, we ask readers to weigh the facts and check our accounts against other sources. If you then agree that a college or university has acted in bad faith or counter to the core principles of liberal inquiry, then we do indeed urge you to speak up.

For those interested, we are also tracking attempted professor cancellations here.


May 21, 2021

Belle S. Wheelan, Ph.D.

President

Southern Association of Colleges and Schools,

Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC)

1866 Southern Lane

Decatur, GA 30033-4097

Dear President Wheelan,

I write to express my concern about your intervention in the search for the new President of Florida State University (FSU). Your action to caution the Florida Board of Governors against considering Richard Corcoran as a candidate appears to have prevented the Board from considering Mr. Corcoran as a finalist for the position. Your intervention arrogated to SACSCOC an improper role for an accreditor. It also has the appearance of politicization. I urge you to repudiate your intervention and to declare that SACSCOC will make no further such interventions in university affairs.

I write as President of the National Association of Scholars (NAS). NAS is a network of scholars and citizens united by our commitment to academic freedom, disinterested scholarship, and excellence in higher education. As part of our mission, we support intellectual freedom throughout North America. We have more than thirty years of experience in advocating for the principles of intellectual freedom. (For further information, please see www.nas.org.)

Your letter of May 13 gave two grounds for caution about Mr. Corcoran’s nomination.1 (You did not mention Mr. Corcoran by name, but your cautions have been universally understood to apply exclusively to him.) You wrote that Mr. Corcoran was a member of the Board of Governors, and therefore there might be a conflict of interest in his nomination. You also wrote that your accreditation standard that administrative and academic officers possess “appropriate experience and qualifications” would rule out Mr. Corcoran. You then provided a heavy hint that FSU might forfeit its accreditation if it selected Mr. Corcoran as president—a forfeit that would deal extraordinary financial damage to FSU. It is generally understood that your intervention effectively removed Mr. Corcoran from consideration as president.2

Your first caution required no extraordinary intervention. A friendly letter to the Board of Governors to inquire that they indeed planned to follow standard protocols and ensure that Corcoran would recuse himself from votes concerning his own candidacy. Since Florida Board of Governors chair Sydney Kitson immediately responded that Corcoran would abstain from voting if he became a finalist, this appears to be a non-issue that required no extraordinary intervention.3

Your second caution appears to be an extraordinarily inappropriate intervention by the representative of an accrediting organization. You appear to be saying that SACSCOC accreditation now requires colleges and universities to exclude everyone but career academic administrators from consideration as presidents of college and university. By definition, this excludes all reform-minded outsiders, as well as the wealth of experience to be gained from non-academic experience. This definition would have excluded the current President of Florida State University, John E. Thrasher. It is certainly a curious standard to apply to man who has served as chief of staff to a United States Senator, speaker of the Florida House of Representatives and an education commissioner of Florida. Few American citizens have so distinguished a resume, and administrative, political, and educational experience would seem an ideal mixture of experience for the position of President of Florida State University.

It is widely known that Mr. Corcoran is a conservative and that the liberal-leaning education establishment of Florida opposed him purely on political grounds.4 SACSCOC should be like Caesar’s wife and avoid even the appearance of impropriety. Yet your intervention, which appears unprecedented, has the appearance of politicization. It is unwise on those grounds alone.

Beyond these specific instances of inappropriateness, you have given SACSCOC an inappropriate role. An accreditor, with the power to render an institution ineligible for federal moneys to support higher education, has enormous power. It ought therefore to exercise that power only in the gravest circumstances. You have now added to your previous intervention in the University System of Georgia5 a further precedent for SACSCOC to veto any nominee to a university presidency, regardless of the appearance of politicization, on the grounds of preserving accreditation standards. These interventions constitute an enormous expansion of accreditors’ power—an expansion you have undertaken unilaterally, without sanction from any branch of government. Your interventions have done far too much to forfeit general public confidence in SACSCOC’s judgment, impartiality, and capacity to act as a responsible steward of the accrediting powers delegated to it by the federal government. They warrant a further invention, by the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI) and by federal legislators, to remove the power of accreditors to act as you have done.

I urge you voluntarily to renounce your imprudent actions. If you do not, you will warrant governmental action to prevent further such imprudent actions by accreditors.

Sincerely yours,

Peter W. Wood

President

National Association of Scholars


1 Belle S. Wheelan to Sydney Kitson, May 13, 2021, https://www.scribd.com/document/508024434/SACS-Letter-to-Sydney-Kitson.

2 Divya Kumar, “Richard Corcoran out of FSU presidential search; three academics move on,” Tampa Bay Times, May 15, 2021, https://www.tampabay.com/news/education/2021/05/15/richard-corcoran-out-of-fsu-presidential-search-three-academics-move-forward/.

3 Kumar, “Richard Corcoran out of FSU presidential search.”

4 Kumar, “Richard Corcoran out of FSU presidential search.”

5 “Accrediting Agency Asks About Politics In Georgia Search,” Associated Press, April 27, 2021, https://www.wabe.org/accrediting-agency-asks-about-politics-in-georgia-search/.


Peter Wood is President of the National Association of Scholars.

Image: Ernie Stephens, Wikimedia CommonsCreative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication, cropped.

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