Although we have not particularly focused on the Florida public universities’ accreditor, Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), Legal Insurrection and others have noted the politicization of school accreditors generally.
On December 7, officials of the Florida Department of Education and chancellor of the State University System of Florida held a closed-door meeting at Tallahassee Community College with the leaders of the nearly 40 state institutions constituting the Florida College System and the State University System.
Inside Higher Ed quoted an anonymous college official as saying that the meeting was supposed to discuss accreditation, but the idea was shelved after the Tallahassee Democrat reported about the planned meeting.
According to a new law (Senate Bill 7044), passed earlier this year and signed by Governor Ron DeSantis on April 19, Florida higher education institutions are required to change accreditors when their current accreditation terms expire. The bill also seeks to improve transparency by requiring schools to post their true costs and their teaching materials.
SB 7044 isn’t not the only education-related law DeSantis signed this year. In April, DeSantis signed a package of education reform bills, including in particular the currently-stayed Stop WOKE Act designed to prevent schools from indoctrinating students into Critical Race Theory. At the signing ceremony, DeSantis announced to loud applause, “We believe in education, not indoctrination. We won’t use your tax dollars to teach our kids to hate this country.”
DeSantis and Florida legislators could have been clearer about the purpose of changing accreditors. Still, it seems reasonable to assume that like the other bills DeSantis signed, it’s related to preventing politicization – in this case, of higher education.
Although LIF has not particularly focused on the Florida public universities’ accreditor, Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), LIF and others have noted the politicization of school accreditors generally. (See, for example, articles regarding the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications, American Bar Association, American Medical Association, and National Association of Independent Schools – here and here.) Over the last few years in particular, accreditors have been forcing a political agenda on the schools they accredit, as by imposing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion and racially discriminatory admissions policies. SACS, which has issued its own DEI policy statement, appears to be similarly politicized.
In the case of the ABA, the nation’s sole federally-recognized law school accreditor, states have enabled its monopoly. LIF has called for states to break that monopoly.
It seems reasonable to suppose DeSantis’ administration is focused on identifying – or helping to create – an accreditor who will focus on ensuring standards and methods, rather than imposing ideology; and that the December 7 meeting was scheduled for that purpose.
On December 15, the Florida Administrative Register published a proposed rule revising current administrative language by replacing specific references to SACSCOC “with language to reflect institutional accrediting agencies more broadly.” The proposal also “formalizes the use of the preproposal notification system used by FCS and State University System (SUS) institutions known as APPRiSe.”
Media coverage about the accreditation law (SB 7044) and December 7 meeting has generally focused on assigning unsavory motives to DeSantis. NPR, WFSU (a public television station), Inside Higher Ed, and other media have suggested the move was in revenge for SACS’ actions in opening an investigation into the University of Florida after three professors there were told they couldn’t testify in a lawsuit challenging a voting rights law DeSantis supported. SACS “concluded the university met all its standards for academic integrity.”
Media have also focused on SACS’ actions in critiquing Florida State University’s consideration of Richard Corcoran during its presidential search. Corcoran is Education Commissioner and a member of the Board of Governors. SACS complained that appointing Corcoran would be a conflict of interest and political interference. As the face of DeSantis’ education department, Corcoran has fielded opposition to the governor’s efforts to push back against ideology and oppressive measures like mask mandates and efforts to force girls’ teams to accept physiologically male transgender athletes.
Whatever the reason for it, Florida officials have characterized the meeting in as insipid a manner as possible. The Tallahassee Democrat reported that, according to the Florida Department of Education’s spokesperson, the meeting’s purpose was to discuss system-wide educational goals and to share their best practices with each other. According to a statement the Florida Board of Governors provided to Inside Higher Ed:
“The presidents of the State University System and the Florida College System met on Wednesday to discuss System-wide educational goals regarding accreditation and 2+2 articulation. It is critical the two public higher educational systems in Florida work collaboratively to share best practices on issues which greatly benefit Florida’s students,” read one statement from the Board of Governors.
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