By Josh Moon
Alabama Political Reporter
The agency responsible for accrediting all of Alabama’s two- and four-year colleges and universities is asking the state legislature to remove Gov. Robert Bentley from all state college boards because of a conflict-of-interest issue, according to a letter from the agency obtained the Alabama Political Reporter.
The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), which issues accreditation for universities throughout the Southeast, wrote to the chairs of the Alabama Senate and House education committees earlier this month and noted that the issue with Bentley became evident when the SACS board undertook a review of the state’s new Community College System.
According to the letter, written by SACS president Belle Wheelan, Bentley’s service as the chair or president of every higher education board – a position he holds by virtue of his office – places him in conflict because he also has the responsibility to select the members of each board and has “ultimate budget authority” over all of the institutions’ budgets.
The SACS board “perceives that this presents a conflict of interest…,” Wheelan wrote to Sen. Dick Brewbaker and Rep. Terri Collins. “I am asking that the Alabama Legislature enact legislation within the state removing the governor from that position.”
The letter was also copied to several other elected officials and to the presidents of Alabama’s community colleges.
Wheelan said she wrote the letter to Brewbaker and Collins at the suggestion of U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne and she requests to meet with lawmakers to further discuss the matter.
Wheelan also notes that while the SACS board voted to continue to accredit all of the schools within the Alabama Community College system during its December meeting, she said board members expressed concern over the current arrangement.
Sources familiar with the conversations between state education leaders and SACS leadership told APR that Bentley’s conflict of interest issues were first broached by SACS officials nearly two years ago. Despite continued conversations about SACS’ concerns – concerns that intensified when reports of an investigation into the governor’s potential misuse of state resources and impeachment proceedings were made public – little was done to address the issue, the sources said.
Should SACS penalize the state for its inaction by placing the Community College System and four-year schools on warning or probation, it could cause significant issues, particularly for the beleaguered two-year system that is trying to overcome past issues.
Should the issues advance far enough that SACS pulls accreditation from state colleges and universities, it would be a catastrophic blow. Accreditation dictates a variety funding measures for schools, including the ability to offer federal student aid, receive most grants and apply for certain loans.