Legal action expected after St. Augustine’s accreditation appeal denied

St. Augustine’s University’s accrediting agency on Tuesday upheld its decision to strip the Raleigh college of its membership in the group, placing the school’s future in further jeopardy.

The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC) voted in December to strip the university of its accreditation and membership, 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. The university was previously on probation with the agency from 2016 to 2018 for similar reasons.

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

In a statement, St. Augustine’s outlined the steps it took in recent weeks to appeal SACSCOC’s December decision, including appearing before an appeals committee of the accrediting agency on Feb. 20. The university requested the agency to extend its probation status — which it had continued to hold while the appeal was processed — for almost two years.

“Despite testimony and evidence supporting a case for significant improvement and the potential to remedy deficiencies, SACSCOC decided to uphold its decision to remove SAU from membership and denied an extension of Probation for Good Cause until December 2025,” the university’s statement read.

Attorneys for the university will request an injunction in the case, the university’s statement said — a move St. Augustine’s interim President Marcus Burgess suggested last week that the university would take if its appeal was denied. While the injunction request remains to be heard in court, the university’s accreditation will remain in place, the statement said.

“We disagree with the decision made by SACSCOC and plan to appeal to a higher authority with evidence supporting the institution’s progress in resolving non-compliance,” Burgess said in a news release Tuesday. “We will move quickly to file a lawsuit against SACSCOC seeking an injunction that, if granted, will allow Saint Augustine’s University to remain accredited with SACSCOC on Probation for Good Cause until the conclusion of litigation.”

The News & Observer has contacted the accrediting agency for comment and has not yet received a response.

Litigation is likely to be a costly move, particularly as the university is already dealing with a bevy of financial challenges.

In recent weeks, the university has struggled to pay staff and faculty on time, including for two separate pay periods in late January and early February, which Burgess said stems from issues with “cash flow” and the availability of funds to the university. The IRS earlier this month filed a $7.9 million lien against the university for unpaid taxes dating back four years, WRAL reported.

But there is precedent for such a legal move. 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.

At a press conference last week, Burgess outlined several steps the university is taking to remedy its financial struggles, including hiring a consulting firm and conducting an audit “to determine how the financial issues developed and the extent of liability for the crisis.”

Asked at that event how close St. Augustine’s is to shutting its doors, Burgess said such a decision is years away.

“It’s too much out there for us to be successful,” he said. “It would be a tragedy if we didn’t do what we can to keep it open.”