Accreditation: campus diversity rule fails in southern US states

Universities in conservative region decline to add DEI component to their conditions of accreditation

December 29, 2023
A view of a man in a Carriage horse in Charleston, South Carolina
Source: iStock

The lone major US accrediting agency to lack a formal requirement on diversity has acknowledged that its member institutions – largely covering the southern part of the nation – are too stuck on the question to move it forward any time soon.

The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (Sacs), after an annual gathering, has put aside the question for at least another five years, said its president, Belle Wheelan.

The inertia is not necessarily surprising in a region with states – especially Texas and Florida – where elected leaders have made clear they do not welcome universities actively promoting racial diversity. Yet some Sacs member institutions held out the possibility of putting the question to a vote, only to have Sacs conduct a poll that showed a majority in opposition.

“We were prepared for that motion to come forward, but it didn’t,” Dr Wheelan said.

US universities have been through a tumultuous year on the topic of boosting the racial diversity of their students and faculty towards levels that reflect the nation’s overall population after the US Supreme Court generally forbade the use of racial preferences in college admissions.

The Florida governor, Ron DeSantis, has made his assaults on racial equity a cornerstone of his bid for the US presidency in 2024. Other states in the traditional Sacs region that embrace that ideology include Texas, where lawmakers have set a January deadline for ending diversity, equity and inclusion offices and initiatives at public universities.

Sacs has had a position statement since 2008 endorsing concepts of racial diversity, and in the past its member institutions have considered the idea of elevating that statement to a standard by which they are judged for accreditation. The opportunity arises every five years when Sacs members gather to review their standards, and some institutions from Texas were behind the idea of attempting a long-shot push for the upgrade this year, Dr Wheelan said.

“We never intended a standard to come forward, but we were prepared to respond to members if they suggested it,” she said.

US colleges and universities need the regular approval of an accrediting agency such as Sacs that is recognised by the federal government for their students to be eligible for federal student aid.

That relationship has become especially tense in the case of Sacs, where Dr Wheelan – a former community college president and former state secretary of education in Virginia under a Democratic governor – has informally wielded her organisation’s accrediting power to push back publicly against acts of political interference in academia in her region, including Mr DeSantis’ failed attempt to prevent three professors testifying against the state’s position in a court case over voting rights.

Republicans, in turn, ended the legal understanding that Sacs and the other major US accrediting agencies would serve only the institutions in their geographical region. Mr DeSantis has been an especially strong advocate of that idea, ordering the state’s public institutions to choose alternatives to Sacs as soon as their existing commitments to the agency expire.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles