Did St. Aug’s lose its accreditation? A look at the NC HBCU’s options to stay open

The future of St. Augustine’s University in Raleigh grew more uncertain Tuesday, when an appeals committee of the university’s accrediting agency denied a request from the university to keep the school on probation, rather than strip its accreditation.

The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC) voted in December to remove the university’s accreditation, citing the college’s failure to comply with several of the agency’s financial principles. That decision came one year after SACSCOC initially placed the university on probation for many of the same financial issues.

St. Augustine’s attempted to appeal the December decision, but the appeals committee unanimously upheld it.

Accreditation is crucial to several facets of university operations, including students’ ability to receive financial aid from the federal government.

So, is the university’s accreditation terminated after the appeals committee’s decision? No.

There are two processes St. Augustine’s plans to engage in that will allow the university to remain accredited, at least until the processes conclude or the university receives a decision in its favor as part of either process.

While the university initially indicated Tuesday it would take legal action as its immediate next step, St. Augustine’s interim President Marcus Burgess said Friday the university would adhere to SACSCOC policy and first engage in an arbitration process.

“Importantly, SAU will remain accredited throughout the arbitration and litigation processes,” Burgess said in a statement.

What will the arbitration and litigation processes entail? Here’s what to know about the university’s status as it continues to fight to keep its accreditation.

What will arbitration process entail for St. Aug’s?

The arbitration process is outlined in SACSCOC policy.

Implemented in 2020, arbitration is a relatively new process for SACSCOC. SACSCOC spokesperson Janea Johnson told The News & Observer Tuesday that St. Augustine’s would be the first university to engage in the process since it was implemented.

According to the policy, if a university disputes a decision made by a SACSCOC appeals committee, the university may engage in arbitration with a new three-member committee, made up of different members than the appeals committee.

Universities have 10 days after the appeals committee issues its decision to request an arbitration hearing. When the university submits that request, and while the arbitration process plays out, the university remains accredited.

The arbitrators are required to “have significant experience in higher education and in the accreditation of institutions of higher education” and have 10 years of experience in both a senior-level position in higher education and in accreditation matters. They do not have to have legal experience or experience in arbitration, though such experience is desired, the policy states.

During the arbitration process, the committee will hold a preliminary hearing, in which the committee and the university will “discuss and establish a procedure for conducting the arbitration proceedings.”

The university will then submit a brief stating its case, and SACSCOC will submit a response to that brief. Both parties will then engage in a hearing with the arbitration committee. The information presented in the briefs and in the hearing can only pertain to the appeals committee’s decision and the information that was presented to that committee during the initial appeal; no additional evidence may be submitted for consideration.

After the hearing, the arbitration committee “may affirm, amend, or remand” the appeals committee’s decision. SACSCOC policy states that the arbitrators’ decision is “final and binding.”

The arbitration committee must issue its decision within 90 days of the arbitration beginning.

What happens if St. Aug’s resorts to litigation?

If the arbitration committee upholds the appeals committee’s decision, St. Augustine’s has indicated it will take legal action and seek an injunction to challenge SACSCOC’s decision.

While the legal process plays out, the university would remain accredited but on probation — the status the university has held since December 2022.

“If necessary, we will move quickly upon the completion of arbitration to file a lawsuit against SACSCOC seeking an injunction that, if granted, will allow SAU to remain accredited with SACSCOC on Probation for Good Cause until the conclusion of litigation,” Burgess said Friday. “We are committed to following the due process. We are prepared to engage in the arbitration and, if necessary, litigation proceedings with confidence and determination.”

There is precedent for legal action against SACSCOC. Bennett College, a private, historically Black college for women located in Greensboro, lost its SACSCOC accreditation in 2018 after being on probation for years over financial issues. After raising $9.5 million in a fundraising campaign and suing SACSCOC, the university became accredited with another agency, the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools, allowing it to remain open and eligible for federal funding.

An entrance to St. Augustine’s University on Oakwood Ave. in Raleigh, N.C., photographed Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2023.
An entrance to St. Augustine’s University on Oakwood Ave. in Raleigh, N.C., photographed Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2023.

What about student aid and graduation?

Because the university will remain accredited while arbitration and potential litigation play out, Burgess said Friday that current seniors at the university will “will still graduate with a degree from an accredited institution” and all current students “will still receive college credit for their courses.”

“It is essential to understand that SACSCOC’s decision has nothing to do with the quality of our academic programs,” Burgess said. “We are committed to upholding the high standards of academic excellence that define SAU, and we are resolute in our mission to nurture future leaders who will shape our world with their knowledge, integrity, and compassion.”

Burgess also said students will continue to be eligible for federal financial aid while the processes unfold. The university will “dedicate ourselves to ensuring that it remains unaffected by recent developments,” he said.

Asked at a February press conference whether the university could, in good conscience, recruit new students to the university as it faces its ongoing financial crisis, Burgess said that issue “is definitely a concern.”

The incoming first-year class will likely be smaller than usual, Burgess said, “but that may be a good thing.” The university’s small size — generally enrolling around 1,000 students each year — has made it particularly vulnerable to enrollment declines and associated financial strains over the years, The N&O has reported.

What about the cost?

Both arbitration and litigation will come with hefty price tags for St. Augustine’s, which is already struggling financially.

SACSCOC policy states that, upon requesting arbitration, the university must submit a deposit check for $15,000 to cover “travel, lodging, meals, and venue charges incurred by the arbitrators and SACSCOC in convening and pursuing the arbitration.”

“The institution submitting the matter to arbitration is responsible for all expenses of the arbitration,” the policy states. “If the expenses actually incurred exceed the deposit, the institution will be assessed the additional amount. If the expenses are less, then the difference will be refunded to the institution.”

Asked at the February press conference about the cost of potential litigation, Burgess said the process “would definitely cost money.” He pointed to a new fundraising campaign, the Falcon Pride Initiative Fund, that aims to raise $5 million for the university as a potential source of funding to support legal costs.

NC Reality Check is an N&O series holding those in power accountable and shining a light on public issues that affect the Triangle or North Carolina. Have a suggestion for a future story? Email realitycheck@newsobserver.com