August 14, 2012; Source: Christian Science Monitor

The regulatory scrutiny of Penn State has reached the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, which accredits universities in the Mid-Atlantic region, and which has announced that Penn State is still accredited but “on warning.” It said “a small team visit” will take place “to verify institutional status and progress.” In addition, Penn State must submit a “monitoring report” to the Middle States Commission by the end of September.

The report is supposed to document progress the school has made to address governance and management deficiencies documented in the Freeh Report (the Penn State-commissioned internal investigation of issues surrounding the university and former assistant football coach and convicted child sexual predator Jerry Sandusky). The monitoring report also needs to address how Penn State will cope with the financial impact of the recently imposed NCAA sanctions against the university as well as the projected costs associated with the scandal. Penn State issued a statement welcoming the Middle States Commission’s inquiries and pledging complete cooperation. The university’s vice provost for academic affairs noted that the questions have “nothing to do with the quality of education our students receive,” but are instead focused on “governance, finance, and integrity issues.”

It is understandable that Penn State wishes to reassure the public that its academic programs are not under scrutiny, but is it really true that a university’s governance, finance, and integrity issues are entirely separate from the quality of education its students receive? The Freeh Report documented some significant (glaring?) gaps in governance and management practice at Penn State. One wonders about the criteria and investigative depth of the Middle States Commission’s accreditation process if the Freeh Report was necessary to alert them to irregularities and departure from best practice and, in some cases, simple compliance with existing mandates. The Penn State revelations may be a wake-up call for accreditation bodies such as the Middle States Commission to review their own criteria and investigative rigor in examining how universities are operated. –Michael Wyland