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Carlson wrong to dismiss accreditation concerns

Sanctions? Schmanctions. Or so said North Dakota House Majority Leader Al Carlson, in effect, the last time he was warned that a law he’d sponsored could prompt an outside group to slam a North Dakota university.

 “I think they can be moved some,” said Carlson in 2011 about the NCAA. And that would happen, he predicted, when he and other state leaders “go down and have a heart-to-heart with those folks about why we passed the law we did and why we believe the law should be respected.”

In short, as the June 15, 2011, story in the Herald summarized, “Carlson said he remains convinced that NCAA officials, presented with a sincere and detailed explanation of why a majority of North Dakotans favor University of North Dakota retaining the Fighting Sioux nickname, would relent on prospective sanctions.”

Well, we all know what happened next.

Now, Carlson is downplaying the impact of another law he supported, this one a proposed amendment to change higher education’s governance structure.

And the stakes are a lot higher this time. Because at issue is not UND’s status in the NCAA, but the accreditation status of every school in the North Dakota University System — every kit in all the caboodles.

Not to worry, Carlson insists. Accreditation fears are a “red herring.”

After all, Dickinson State University survived a major scandal with its accreditation intact. And “I’m telling you if we didn’t lose accreditation over that, we’re not going to lose accreditation over much of anything,” Carlson said at a policy summit in Bismarck last week.

But before we accept that reassurance, let’s consider a few things.

First, let’s consider that Carlson was wrong in 2011 when he tried to predict an out-of-state agency’s reaction. For of course, the NCAA relented on nothing and wasn’t moved at all, despite Carlson and others’ “sincere and detailed explanations” about the Fighting Sioux law.

Second, let’s consider that there’s a difference between the Dickinson State situation and the one the North Dakota University System could face if Measure 3 is adopted.

The difference is that in the eyes of the Higher Learning Commission — the regional accrediting agency — Dickinson State had put its scandal behind it and had renewed its commitment to the agency’s standards.

In contrast, Measure 3 would put the North Dakota University System in direct, deliberate and continuing conflict with those standards. It would do this by explicitly making the system’s new board subservient to the governor and Legislature, in defiance of the Higher Learning Commission’s Core Component 2C, which requires that:

* “The governing board of the institution is sufficiently autonomous to make decisions in the best interest of the institution and to assure its integrity,” and

* “The governing board preserves its independence from undue influence on the part of donors, elected officials, ownership interests, or other external parties when such influence would not be in the best interest of the institution.”

Third, let’s consider that the regional accreditors have not been shy about using such provisions as a hammer. They did so in 1938 against none other than the North Dakota Agricultural College, yanking the accreditation of the school that’s now North Dakota State University over claims of political interference.

And as recently as last year, the commission put the University of Phoenix “on notice” regarding its accreditation. The status “signals that the university could be on course to lose its accreditation unless it remedies concerns raised by the Higher Learning Commission,” the Chronicle of Higher Education reported.

Among those concerns: governance issues, “which relate to the university’s degree of independence from its parent company,” the Chronicle reported.

The University of Phoenix, by the way, is America’s largest private university.

As mentioned, the Higher Learning Commission is not shy.

“I believe the proposed structure as described in the legislation raises questions about whether, once the structure goes into effect, the institutions would be in compliance with the Commission’s requirements on governance, as I explained them in the previous letter.”

You can believe the words of Al Carlson when he says accreditation is a “red herring.” Or you can believe the words of the Higher Learning Commission’s then-President Sylvia Manning, as quoted in the paragraph just above, and start taking accreditation and Measure 3 very seriously indeed.