Experts: Penn State warning is serious, necessary

August 14, 2012 - 5:53 PM
Penn State Accreditation

FILE - In this Jan. 12, 2012 file photo, Penn State University President Rodney Erickson speaks during a town hall meeting with alumni in King of Prussia, Pa. Erickson said Monday Aug. 13, 2012, that the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, "wants us to document that steps we have already taken and are planning to take will ensure our full compliance with its requirements." (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — An accreditation warning issued to Penn State is serious and necessary given the issues raised by a recent child sex-abuse scandal, but the school is unlikely to lose the all-important designation, experts said Tuesday.

They also expect the university to comply quickly with demands to show that its governance, finances and integrity meet standards set by its accreditation agency, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education.

"This is an entirely appropriate and anticipated action by Middle States given the strategic importance of voluntary peer review," said American Council on Education president Molly Corbett Broad. "It's really the basis on which public accountability is achieved in American higher education."

The Philadelphia-based Middle States Commission issued the warning last week based on the school's handling of molestation allegations against Jerry Sandusky, a former assistant football coach convicted in June of sexually abusing 10 boys.

Concerns include whether Penn State trustees provide sufficient oversight of the administration, the strength of the university's ethical standards and the school's compliance with government policies, such as those requiring campus crime reports, said Middle States spokesman Richard Pokrass.

The commission also wants the school to address its financial status in light of a $60 million penalty imposed by the NCAA and any lawsuits from Sandusky's victims.

Penn State must submit a report to the agency by Sept. 30. A small team of accreditors would then visit the school in State College.

"The university has been very cooperative," Pokrass said Tuesday. "The leadership of the university is aware of what the concerns are and have been taking very positive steps."

Penn State is now one of about 15 schools in the Mid-Atlantic region with a warning.

Most institutions work their way off warning status within a year to 18 months, Pokrass said. Those that don't are put on probation.

Schools lose accreditation after two years of noncompliance, starting with the warning. Students cannot use federal funds — including Pell grants and government loans — to attend unaccredited schools.

Penn State stressed that it remains accredited and that academic programs are not being questioned.

"This action has nothing to do with the quality of education our students receive," Blannie Bowen, vice provost for academic affairs, said in a statement.

Judith Eaton, president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, said Tuesday that Penn State has the reputation, strength and resources to rebound from this setback. It's "highly unlikely" the school will end up on probation, let alone lose its accreditation, she said.

Still, accreditation warnings are important tools because governments typically don't take action against colleges and universities, Broad said. Accreditation agencies provide accountability through standards enforcement and peer evaluation of academic programs, university leadership, financial stability and institutional honor.

"This is serious both for our own sense of integrity and well-being within higher education," Broad said.

The school that most recently lost its accreditation from Middle States was Baltimore International College, a culinary school in Maryland.

Pokrass said it lost its accreditation about nine months ago because of finances, a lack of assessment of student learning and issues regarding student services. It is now owned and operated by Stratford University, an accredited for-profit institution based in Virginia.

Middle States accredits more than 525 colleges and universities in five states plus the District of Columbia, two U.S. territories and several international locations.

___

Follow Kathy Matheson at www.twitter.com/kmatheson