Let's Talk About SACS, Baby!

Since returning to South Florida one of the inevitable questions I’ve been asked by friends and family is “Where are you working?” and my response has been “Right now, I’m not because I can’t. I re-enrolled in graduate school so I can.” While I’ll not go into the reasons why I’m not pursuing non-academic career options right now, suffice it to say people are confused by this response as I’d received a Masters degree from N.Y.U. What I want to accomplish with this article is explain to in some detail why this is so and to mention an objection to the new regulatory framework outlined by the Department of Education (D.O.E.) as manifested in the form the Southern Assocation of Colleges and Schools (SACS) that has resulted in my inability to obtain a position in Florida.

At the beginning of my second year at NYU, in 2010, the hiring guidelines for university professors that had held across America for more than seventy years was changed. As I was focusing on my graduate studies, I was unaware of its adoption. In a largely unreported policy shift, colleges across the country were given two years to align themselves with the new guidelines and those that failed to comply to them would result in punishment appropriate to the severity of the infraction. A warning could be given for something small or DOE accreditation could be revoked for something large. Schools not yet accredited via DOE affiliated institutions or who have had their licensure revoked, it should be noted, are ineligible for government funding. Ostensibly, lacking the ability to directly impose it’s will upon state and local educational institutions, the federal government threatened to starve those that did not comply. The new regulatory framework was not overly drastic nor contemptible, but this does not mean that they are insignificant either. In fact for students, professors and administrators there’s a whole lot that has changed.

For one, the passing of the reforms backed by the Obama administration resulted in the consolidation of various collegiate accreditation agencies by stating that only a few of them would be eligible for federal funding. The quasi-governmental bodies which report to the Department of Education were reduced in number to regional bodies, which would now be in charge of all the schools and universities in their district. There are several reasons for doing this, the most obvious being a reduction of redundancy as there are a large number of institutions that deem themselves licensing agencies for colleges and universities. Examples of these could include the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE), the Commission on Collegiate Nursing (ABN), the International Assembly for Collegiate Business Education (IACBE), the National Association of Schools of Music (NASM). While previously each of these would have been involved in the accreditation of a college or university’s Nursing School or Business School – their pre-existing requirements are now subsumed under the policy guidelines of the regional commissions on colleges. Those schools must follow these guidelines as well as those of the regional Commission on Colleges.

Creating a set of guidelines which applies to these various enterprises doesn’t mean they have been divested of crediting power, but simply increases standardization of grading for schools across various regions. This policy thankfully provides increased ease for students wishing to transfer credits to other universities. With curriculum and standards at one university basically aligned with others there is less likelihood that transfer credits would be denied, thus making credits received at a community or state college valid at another should a student decide to transfer to a state or private university.

While I’ve had no personal experience with this, my wife’s dual-enrollment experience is illustrative of the problem some students have faced. While in high school, prior to the adoption of the new SACS standards in 2010, Josselyn entered a dual-enrollment program at Broward College. She received twenty-four university credits while enrolled, but was unable to use only nine of these credits when she transferred to Nova Southeastern University. The time that she had spent in attending and studying for the classes and the money spent by the state for her education were, in essence, wasted as she was forced to retake those classes which she had already passed.

Today, this would not happen due to this form of stronger consumer protections. Also worth mentioning in passing is the additional function the new regulatory regime has is: giving it the power to prevent schools not authorized by the DOE from advertising that they are an “accredited school”. This is in large part a response to the proliferation of online diploma mills that have hoodwinked those that paid for courses and received degrees which other, more reputable and established accrediting agencies don’t view as valid. To accomplish this type of academic credit compatibility amongst the universities requires a degree of standardized hiring practices and movement towards a uniform curriculum. If this process sounds familiar, it should. The consolidation of regional values and goals into a singular, national pattern is based on the federal government’s initiation of K-12 school curriculum standards and learning goals.

In my discussions with university representatives on Broward College, Palm Beach State College and FAU, I’ve learned that many of the professors in the humanities were dismissed prior to the start of this academic year because their academic record was not on par with the newly adopted SACS rubric. Professors that had been hired to teach American political science on the due to their having graduated law school rather than an M.A. or Ph.D. in that field have been let go. History professors who were teaching introductory level political science classes without 18 graduate credits in that field were cut – even if they’d taught the class any number of times before. Speaking with professors, those that have degrees specialized in a certain area are no longer allowed to teach classes on something else.

This means that someone like me, who focused their graduate studies on political science and history (24 of 32 total graduate credits plus my masters thesis) but did not have 18 credits solely in either are not eligible to teach either. While I do find the situation I’m in loathsome, I am generally in favor for such a model of credentialing as subject area expertise emerges from a significant amount of field research and those that are only partially familiar with a subject should not be passed off as someone that has mastered the material and is thus able to teach it. What I do take issue with these standards for accreditation are the certain ambiguities of assessment not addressed by SACS or the COC. Simply put, people who actively pursue academic careers do not just read field literature for credit but as part of an ongoing enrichment process and the current model doesn’t account for this.

On average, I read from three to seven books a month and according to these new standards, my “personal research” isn’t within the framework of SACS credentialing and are thus are not “credited” to me. It is this situation that has caused me to start writing responses to most of the books that I’ve been reading in the past several months.

With this in mind I feel that there needs to be other options for university professors to develop their professional standing without being forced to pay for courses in or out of their field – especially at a time when the humanities are under attack and thus the options available for “crediting” via free tuition benefits are reduced. If this seems somewhat abstract, let me give you an example.

Because of their historical and political relevance to my own field of expertise, I’ve read quite a large number of utopian and dystopian novels as well as the historical context of their emergence and comparative literature responses to them. While I wouldn’t qualify myself as “comparative literature” professor per se, I would not only feel comfortable leading a undergraduate level class on this topic but would do so without any sense that I was providing them a sub-par education. A similar standard holds true to Nietzsche’s philosophy, Marxian interpretations of society, etc. and especially in the situation I find myself in now where I have to take more credits to become a SACS credentialed history and political science professor.

Now I don’t know whether or not SACS will make room for this in the future, but I would imagine that as they are still coping with the transitions of the new regulatory frameworks I don’t think it will do so soon. However I do think this is something to be considered seriously now rather than seventy years down the road.