A high-profile warning to Penn State University about its accreditation won’t likely hobble academics at the scandal-rocked school, education experts said Tuesday.
But that’s little consolation to students in State College, where an accreditation review by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education is stoking tempers.
“I think any college student would be not only offended but disappointed and upset,” said undergraduate Abigail Ferry, 20, of Murrysville. She sees “no connection between the caliber of our education” and the child-rape scandal that came to light in November.
The Middle States inquiry is a hurtful distraction when students “want to move forward,” Ferry said. “We want to continue our education, go about our daily lives and rebuild our community and university.”
Penn State said Middle States issued an accreditation warning on Aug. 8. The move stems from a report last month by former FBI Director Louis Freeh, who found top university officials covered up information about child rapist Jerry Sandusky for more than a decade. University trustees hired Freeh to complete the report.
Middle States also cited the agreement that Penn State reached with the NCAA, which imposed heavy penalties on the university football program for how leaders handled accusations against Sandusky, 68, a retired defensive coordinator who was convicted in June of sexually abusing 10 boys over 15 years, often in Penn State facilities.
The commission has focused on “governance, integrity and financial issues related to information in the Freeh report and other items related to our current situation,” Vice Provost Blannie Bowen said in a prepared statement. Commission leaders have “insufficient evidence” that Penn State complies with several core accreditation standards, including expectations for leadership and integrity, according to the university.
The Tribune-Review could not reach Middle States executives. Penn State said the commission is combing its financial plans as the university copes with the scandal. School leaders expect a wave of civil claims, along with likely federal fines and a $60 million fine from the NCAA.
“This action has nothing to do with the quality of education our students receive,” Bowen said.
The commission handles accreditation for colleges and universities in Pennsylvania and four neighboring states. Schools without proper accreditation may not be eligible to participate in key student aid programs, federal research and some course-credit transfers, among other elements, so the stakes are high.
Former Penn State professor Donald E. Heller said the Middle States review is no surprise.
“I frankly wouldn’t be too concerned about it from Penn State’s perspective,” said Heller, the College of Education dean at Michigan State University. “I don’t think Middle States is looking to revoke the university’s accreditation.”
Commission members probably needed to demonstrate “they know what’s going on” and will not let Penn State dictate its own terms.
Commission on Higher Education President Judith Eaton called it “highly unlikely” Penn State will land in probation or lose its accreditation.
The review is critical, though, because “it’s really the basis on which public accountability is achieved in American higher education,” said Molly Corbett Broad, president at the American Council on Education.
“This is serious both for our own sense of integrity and well-being within higher education,” Broad said.
About 15 schools in the Mid-Atlantic region have active accreditation warnings, Middle States spokesman Richard Pokrass told The Associated Press. He said most emerge from warning status within 18 months.
Middle States ordered a monitoring report from Penn State by Sept. 30. A team from the commission will visit the university shortly thereafter and develop a report of its own.
“I think it will be a fairly pro forma response from the university,” Heller said. He expects Penn State will reiterate its commitment to comply with Freeh’s suggested reforms.
Meanwhile, the university community awaits the next waves of Sandusky scandal fallout. Pre-trial arguments are set for Thursday in Harrisburg for the cases of Tim Curley and Gary Schultz, former Penn State executives charged with perjury and failure to report. Both have maintained their innocence.
Neither is expected to appear for the arguments, and no trial date has been announced.
Another former executive, ousted university President Graham Spanier, has deflected criticism since the Freeh report alleged he, too, helped in a cover-up. Press reports Tuesday suggested Spanier’s attorneys would hold a press conference next week to underscore flaws in the report. Spanier attorney Peter Vaira told the Trib nothing is scheduled.
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Adam Smeltz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5676 or [email protected].