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The University of Puerto Rico Buck Stops Here

By on January 25, 2019

Editor’s note: The following originally appeared in the Jan. 24-30, 2019, issue of Caribbean Business.

“To understand how the university ended up just one step away from entering an ‘adverse action,’ which is the removal of accreditation and the subsequent processes, it is important to review this past year and 10 months.”

On Jan. 10, University of Puerto Rico (UPR) officials received notification from the Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE) that its 11 campuses were placed under “show-cause status,” which requires them to demonstrate to the accreditation agency why UPR should maintain its accreditation.

This action brings the university to a critical point but does not come out of left field. The UPR has been struggling for 20 months to respond to concerns from the accreditation agency that the institution’s internal planning process is deficient and, due to budget cuts, its funding is insufficient.

The UPR is not alone in this accreditation predicament. Several stateside institutions are also in noncompliance with the MSCHE standards, one of which has managed to buy time, extending its process past the two-year limit established by the federal regulation.

How did we get here?

On Jan. 25, 2019, the UPR administration is to submit 11 show-cause reports with which it needs to defend why the campuses should remain accredited. This deadline is close to the one year and eight months since the probation period started for the Arecibo, Bayamón, Carolina, Cayey, Humacao, Ponce, Río Piedras and Utuado campuses.

To understand how the university ended up just one step away from entering an “adverse action,” which is the removal of accreditation and the subsequent processes, it is important to review this past year and 10 months.

On March 21, 2017, while eight of the campuses were experiencing student stoppages in protest of the austerity measures in UPR’s fiscal plan, the Middle States Commission sent a letter to the campuses advising them that they are receiving a “warning,” which is the first stage in noncompliance actions.

In the letter, the MSCHE explained that they were monitoring the campuses’ compliance with the Requirement of Affiliation 3 (now the second requirement), which addresses whether the institution is open and operational; the Requirement of Affiliation 8 (now the 11th requirement), regarding documented financial resources; and the Standard of Accreditation III (now Standard VI), which addresses institutional resources.

While the letter addresses student stoppages as a pressing concern, it also focuses on fiscal challenges, stating: “We are aware that very significant expenditure budget reductions are being discussed and likely will be required across the UPR system. Depending on the nature and extent of actual budget reductions, several of the commission’s requirements of affiliation, standards and policies could be called into question.”

The letter, signed by MSCHE President Elizabeth H. Sibioski, also mentions that any closure or merger of different units must comply with the Substantive Change requirements.

After a supplementary report, the eight aforementioned campuses were put on probation for all the regulations mentioned in the March letter, and the Aguadilla, Mayagüez and Medical Science campuses were ordered to submit reports on the requirements for documented financial and institutional resources.

Probation and continued probation is the second stage under the noncompliance status.

The first hiccup with the probation process came in March 2018, when the UPR was unable to provide audited financial statements for fiscal year 2017. In this case, the university was recovering from damages from the 2017 hurricanes, and the MSCHE gave the academic institution until Sept. 30, 2018, to submit its financial statements.

By the end of summer 2018, the MSCHE lifted its noncompliance on Requirement of Affiliation 2, but compliance with financial and planning requirements were still under question and the commission continued to ask for documentation of internal finances and planning, as well as the impact on the UPR of the fiscal control board’s plan and proposed restructuring.

The next setback for the UPR became public during the Aug. 27 meeting of the UPR Governing Board. Then-President Darrell Hillman and CFO Antonio Tejera announced in Hillman’s last report to the Governing Board that the UPR had to ask for another extension, this time until Dec. 30, 2018. In their address, they explained that Ernst & Young would be in charge of preparing the audited financial statements for 2017, while advisers and administrators need to prepare for the audited financial statements for fiscal year 2018, which are due this March.

The Graduate Student Representative to the UPR Governing Board, Marysel Pagán, along with other members of the university’s governance structure, explained that the UPR submitted the financial information to Ernst & Young in late December thus blowing the Nov. 27 deadline. This led the university to miss its Dec. 30 deadline and Jan. 2, 2019, was its last chance.

Reaching a critical point

When the university missed its most recent deadline, the noncompliance list grew to include Requirement of Affiliation 14, which asks the institution to have fair, accurate and complete information available to the commission. This led the MSCHE to decide on Jan. 7 to put all campuses under “show-cause status,” including those that were not on probation.

The UPR’s 11 campuses will have to submit show-cause reports on Jan. 25, which must include financial documents and planning, as well as a Teach-Out plan detailing the plan if the UPR loses its accreditation. Then, during the first week of February, an evaluation team will visit all campuses. Following the visit, the MSCHE will meet to decide the UPR’s future. The options are to withdraw accreditation, reaffirm accreditation or keep the campuses under continued show-cause status.

On Jan. 14, the UPR submitted financial statements, in which Ernst & Young expressed doubts the UPR could maintain financial stability given the central government’s fiscal problems; there was also doubt that the measures in UPR’s fiscal plan are implementable or if implemented would produce the expected results.

The UPR is not alone in this boat

The show-cause status is uncharted territory for the UPR but universities across the U.S. have gone through the various processes related to a noncompliance classification with mixed results.

Title 34, part 602.2, of the Higher Education Act gives up to two years to colleges and universities with full, four-year degrees to resolve any noncompliance before the regional accreditation agency resorts to an “adverse action.” However, at the end of the act’s section, it opens up the possibility for accreditation agencies to extend the process if they see “just cause.”

The Middle States’ Accreditation Actions Procedures manual indicates the extension for good cause is “a form of exceptional relief and not an institutional right. A decision to grant an extension for good cause is made at the sole discretion of the commission and is not subject to appeal.”

An institution can have no more than two just-cause extensions, which can be for up to a year at the most. This brings the total period an institution can be in noncompliance to four years before having to start the adverse-action process.

Such is the case of Cheyney University of Pennsylvania, which entered probation status in November 2015. In June 2017, the commission voted to put Cheyney under show cause for noncompliance with Requirement of Affiliation 11 (at the time, it was the eighth requirement), Standard VI (at the time, the second standard), which are the same standards applied to the UPR during most of its probation process, and two additional standards.

In November 2017, with the clock running out on its two-year probation period, the MSCHE, granted Cheyney their first one-year extension for good cause and in November 2018 the commission granted the second extension, with the institution reducing its noncompliance to Standard VI and the Requirement of Affiliation 11.

According to the letter sent to Cheyney University, the MSCHE granted the one-year extension “because the institution has provided written and compelling evidence that the quality of student learning has not been compromised, demonstrated significant progress toward the resolution of its noncompliance issues, is making a good-faith effort to remedy existing deficiencies and a reasonable expectation exists that such deficiencies will be remedied within the period of the extension.”

The Cheyney show-cause report has a deadline of Aug. 15, 2018, and most of the monitoring reports requested during the MSCHE’s regular November meeting are due in March. This contrasts with the 15 days the UPR was given to produce its show-cause report for Jan. 25.

From close calls to closings

It is worth pointing out that although both the UPR and Cheyney University have been on probation for the same standards, if the UPR is not able to resolve its accreditation problems before the two-year mark, and there is a possibility the university may solve them, it should not rely on the similarity of the two cases to expect a possible “good-cause extension.” The good-cause extension has not yet been offered and there are several evaluating factors.

While a good-cause extension is at the “sole discretion of the commission,” the Accreditation Actions Procedures does indicate several factors the MSCHE analyzes to decide whether to grant that reprieve.

The MSCHE looks for evidence, which among other areas, includes the “learning experience has not been compromised;” that “the institution has complied with all commission policies and procedures;” that it has presented an implementable teach-out plan and shows the potential to remedy the noncompliance issues and the plans to meet MSCHE expectations.

The list of factors evaluated also includes language identical to the Requirement of Affiliation 14, which states “evidence the institution has made freely available to the commission of accurate, fair and complete information on all aspects of the institution and its operations, and in response to commission requests for information.

Further down the list, it also mentions “evidence that the institution has complied with all state and federal requirements.” Because the audited financial statements are also part of the requirements of the U.S. Department of Education, the delays for fiscal year 2018 statements, which are due in March, could be a factor in the MSCHE’s decision process.

Many universities have satisfactory outcomes after noncompliance probation periods. The UPR received reaffirmation of accreditation after its 2010 probation process and, more recently, Saint Augustine University in North Carolina, which is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges & School Commission (SACSC), removed its probation status.

However, that is not the outcome for all universities. The process for universities that have lost their accreditation is an uphill battle because without accreditation from a federally approved accreditation agency, institutions are not eligible to receive federal funding. In addition, certain programs require particular accreditations that are dependent on the institutional accreditation, while other universities may refuse to validate credits or diplomas from unaccredited institutions.

In 2012, the Wall Street Journal published a list of 18 institutions that lost their accreditation sometime during the previous decade. At that time, nine institutions had already closed, and out of the ones that didn’t immediately closed or merged, two closed permanently, two closed for a period of time, one is trying to cope with dwindling enrollment due to a lack of accessible federal aid, and two are accredited today.

Of the two institutions now accredited, Paul Quinn College (PQC) in Texas addressed the issue by pursuing accreditation of a different organization. Originally, PQC was accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges & Schools; however, after the adverse action by the SACSC in 2011, the academic institution switched from a regional agency to the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges & Schools for its accreditation.

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