Warning unlikely to threaten Penn State’s accreditation

Posted: August 15, 2012

Even though Pennsylvania State University got yet another stern warning Monday, it is highly unlikely that the university will lose its accreditation as a result of the child sex-abuse scandal involving a former assistant football coach, national experts said.

"Unthinkable. Unimaginable," said Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education, which represents presidents of colleges and universities and leaders of other higher education-related organizations. "It's a great university. Its academic quality is superb. . . . If I were a mother of a youngster who had been accepted to Penn State, there is nothing in this set of events that would cause me to have second thoughts about the choice of school."

The action by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, which issued the warning, is "standard protocol" for an accreditation agency, she said.

In addition to academic quality, the agency also requires universities to meet standards regarding financial health, adequate board governance, and institutional integrity, and Penn State will have to address such issues in answering the commission's warning.

It also must comply with federal laws, such as the Clery Act, which requires that universities provide accurate and timely reports of crime on their campuses. The U.S. Department of Education is trying to determine whether the university violated the Clery Act.

The investigations and actions against the university follow a university-commissioned report by former FBI Director Louis Freeh that found top Penn State administrators failed to report allegations of child sex abuse against Jerry Sandusky for years. Sandusky was convicted in June on dozens of counts of abusing boys on campus and off.

In addition to considering the Freeh report, the Middle States Commission also issued its warning based on NCAA sanctions that the university accepted July 23 and insufficient evidence that the university was meeting some Middle States rules. The NCAA hit the university with a $60 million fine, a four-year ban on postseason football, and loss of football scholarships. It also vacated the football team's victories from 1998, when the first abuse allegation against Sandusky surfaced, through 2011.

Penn State has until Sept. 30 to prepare its response to the Middle States Commission's warning. University officials expressed confidence Monday that they would be able to adequately address the commission's concerns.

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

Losing accreditation would be disastrous for a university. Not only would its federal research dollars be lost, students would no longer be eligible to receive federal financial aid.

Even if Penn State were to lose accreditation, it would not happen any time soon. A university has two years to remedy problems, said Richard Pokrass, a spokesman for the Middle States Commission.

"For somebody to think that Penn State is one step away from losing accreditation is inaccurate," he said.

There was clearly much concern, however. The commission received 60 e-mails and 10 phone calls Tuesday from Penn State parents and others about the warning, he said.

Parents should not panic, experts say.

"Warnings from an accrediting organization to an institution it accredits are serious, and the issues that are the basis for the warning must be addressed," said Judith Eaton, president of the Council of Higher Education Accreditation. "With that said, it would be extraordinary for a university of the stature and strength of Penn State to lose its accreditation."

The council is an association of 3,000 colleges and universities that reviews accrediting agencies to be sure they meet certain qualifications.

In 2011, 23 of the 532 schools accredited by Middle States were given warnings, according to Eaton. Of the approximately 7,800 schools accredited nationally, 161 received warnings that year, she said.

Other local universities have received warnings. Cabrini College in Radnor and Gwynedd Mercy College in Gwynedd Valley recently had warnings removed after satisfying commission concerns.

Eastern University in St. Davids recently was placed on warning for failure to meet strategic-planning and assessment requirements.

The Middle States Commission asked Penn State for an information report after a grand jury presentment against Sandusky was made public in November and two university officials were indicted on perjury charges in the case. University president Graham B. Spanier and head football coach Joe Paterno were fired in the aftermath.

Penn State provided its initial report in late 2011, and the commission last March told the university to keep it informed of any developments, including providing any reports on the case.

The university has cooperated, Pokrass said.

"That will work in their favor," he said.

A commission team will visit Penn State after it provides the report to assess the school's compliance efforts. The university will have a chance to respond to that visitation report. The commission will then decide whether to consider Penn State's accreditation further.

The commission's next meeting is in Philadelphia in November.


Contact Susan Snyder at 215-854-4693 or ssnyder@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @ssnyderinq

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