The accreditation of Alabama’s more than two dozen community and technical colleges is safe — for now — but the agency tasked with overseeing institutions of higher education across the entire Southern United States has made it clear: When it comes to his role in Alabama’s higher education system, the accrediting body wants Gov. Robert Bentley sacked.
In a letter to legislative leadership ahead of the upcoming regular session in Montgomery, Belle Wheelan, president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools’ (SACS) Commission on Colleges, expressed concerns on behalf of her organization that Bentley’s positions as head of the Alabama Community College System and ex-officio head of most university boards presents a conflict of interest for the governor.
“Upon reviewing the request, it became obvious that the governor of the state of Alabama is the board chair of the system board,” Wheelan wrote. “The SACSCOC board perceives that this presents a conflict of interest.
“The SACSCOC board perceives that this presents a conflict of interest in that the governor also appoints the members of that board, and has ultimate budget authority over all of the institutional budgets. Upon further review, it also became apparent that the governor is the chair of the board of every state college or university in the state of Alabama.”
Rick Legon, president of the Association of Governing Boards, an organization that “supports the boards of directors for universities and colleges,” has said that he, too, finds the set-up — part of which was enacted in 2015 by the Alabama Legislature — to be troubling.
“The governor of a state should not be holding the gavel of a board that is sworn to serve and demonstrate — or have in practice — a high degree of autonomy to make the best decisions on behalf of the institutions,” Legon said. “It’s just a little bit too close to have the chief executive of the state, who wields so much power, direct or indirect, [as] chair of that same body.”
Indeed, Bentley has used his power over Alabama’s universities arbitrarily and capriciously. While ignoring significant issues at other institutions, including the state’s flagship university, other schools — particularly Alabama State University, a historically black institution — have been targets of the governor’s scrutiny.
Bentley even initiated a forensic audit of Alabama State that dragged on but led to no evidence of misdeeds. Even SACS itself briefly conducted — and closed — an investigation of the school because of Bentley’s signaling. These examples of higher ed hypocrisy — recently highlighted by Josh Moon of Alabama Political Reporter in an article aptly titled “The privilege of being a white college in Alabama” — reinforce SACS’ point: Bentley’s close involvement with the state’s higher ed system alongside his power to influence and ultimately approve legislation, including university and college budgets, poses an ever-present ethical blunder.
The governor’s office responded to the letter from SACS by attacking it, saying the group should have reached out to Bentley, not the Legislature.
“We have received the letter; however, it is important to note we did not receive formal communication from SACS regarding this matter,” the governor’s office said in a statement. “We disagree strongly with the assumption that the governor has undue influence on boards of institutions. It appears the recommendations outlined in this letter are misguided and politically motivated. The placement of the governor on the board is set up by statute and by our Constitution, and I’m going to obey our Constitution.”
SACS’ concerns aren’t misguided: Calling an accrediting agency’s concerns about ethics “politically motivated” is. Even further, Bentley’s statement shuns the letter for suggesting he not “obey our Constitution.” Nothing could be further from the truth. SACSCOC President Wheelan has made it clear: The rules shouldn’t be ignored; they should be changed.
Wheelan also said she contacted the legislature at the suggestion of Rep. Bradley Byrne, former head of the two-year college system, with whom she consults about state education issues.
Byrne’s office said he talked to Wheelan, “who he has known for years dating back to his time as chancellor of the two-year college system, at her request to discuss federal education issues. During the meeting, this topic came up and [Byrne] told her to share her concerns with the state legislative leaders since it is not an issue of federal jurisdiction.”
As for lawmakers’ reactions, they’re split.
“The good news is that the accreditation board voted to accredit all of our community colleges,” said Rep. Terri Collins, chair of the House Education Committee. “But because of him signing the appropriations bill at the end of each session, and also being in charge of the appointments of the appointees that serve on that board, I think [SACS] is concerned about a conflict of interest,” she said.
Indeed, Collins seemed open to at least discussing changes to accommodate SACS’ concerns.
“Addressing any concerns they have will be a priority,” Rep. Collins said. “I don’t believe we’ve seen a conflict in the past so I’ll just have to hear what those concerns over the governance are, and maybe they are things that can be worked out without legislation.”
Sen. Dick Brewbaker, though, who heads education policy in the Senate, says he doesn’t see a real issue with the practice.
“This is an old, old practice, and it doesn’t just exist in Alabama,” he said. “The governor in Alabama doesn’t have a real veto. It only takes a simple majority to override, which is the same as it takes to pass a bill. So the idea that the governor can throw his weight around and significantly affect a particular college’s budget is just not accurate.”
As for a conclusion to the higher-ed drama, one may come through discussion and time, and Wheelan said SACS’ position may change down the road, but for now they want Bentley sacked, and they want the Alabama Legislature to help them do it.
“If they can explain it, I’m sure my board will back off,” Wheelan said. “But right now, it’s an anomaly for us.”