Penn State’s Accreditation Comes Under Scrutiny

Much of the response to the Penn State scandal seems to come from a sense that actors with some control over the governance and judgement of Penn State ought to be taking some sort of action. As my colleague Travis Waldron has pointed out, the harsh fines, bans, and vacated wins the NCAA imposed on Penn State’s football program seemed more like an attempt to make up for the organization’s own burnishing of Joe Paterno’s legacy than a response that would have a meaningful impact on the conditions that allowed Jerry Sandusky continued access to Penn State facilities and the legitimacy his Penn State connections conferred upon him. The decision to remove Joe Paterno’s statue was not the result of a long-considered process, but an immediate need to act. And at first glimpse, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education’s warning to Penn State that its accreditation could be in danger might seem like a similarly punitive action. But the questions the Commission needs to ask are reasonable ones, and working them through with Penn State could help that community and the general public learn more about the university’s future.

Accredited colleges need to be financially stable and in compliance with government requirements, and it’s reasonable that the Commission would want to be reassured of Penn State’s ability to meet those requirements. The NCAA fines alone come to almost half the $136.3 million in gifts to the university in fiscal 2011. Then, there’s the inevitable civil suits against Penn State, which is one of several schools not considered part of Pennsylvania’s state government, and thus covered by sovereign immunity, which would protect it from being sued. It looks like Penn State will try to offer compensation to Sandusky’s victims, but we’re a long way from knowing whether those victims will want to go to court instead, whether any of them would participate in a compensation fund, and what either the compensation or the damages handed down by a jury would look like, though it’s likely to be an extremely expensive process.

Penn State isn’t broke — it had $4.6 billion in revenue in fiscal 2011, and as of last September, the university’s endowment stood at $1.83 billion. But it’s not unreasonable for the Commission to inquire — especially given that Penn State’s insurer, the Pennsylvania Manufacturer’s Association, is trying to deny the university coverage on the grounds that Penn State concealed the risk Sandusky posed to the institution — how Penn State plans to assume the costs of the scandal. If Penn State dips into its endowment to compensate victims, how will that lost potential for income affect programs and staffing? If giving rates slow, whether because alums are horrified at what their university let take place, or because, as inexplicable as it may be to outsiders, loyalists believe the university treated Joe Paterno unfairly, what is the university’s long-term financial plan?

Beyond the question of finances, Pennsylvania state law requires “Licensees who are staff members of a medical or other public or private institution, school, facility or agency, and who, in the course of their employment, occupation or practice of their profession, come into contact with children shall immediately notify the person in charge of the institution, school facility or agency or the designated agent of the person in charge when they have reasonable cause to suspect on the basis of their professional or other training or experience, that a child coming before them in their professional or official capacity is a victim of child abuse.” And the Clery Act requires universities to report sexual assaults (and other kinds of violence) on campus if they want their students to be able to use federal financial aid and can fine schools heavily if they fail to comply — the Education Department is investigating Penn State for violations of the Act. Given the failure of Penn State officials to abide by their state and federal obligations in the Sandusky case, and the fact that abiding by government requirements is one of the things universities need to do to remain accredited, it’s reasonable for the Commission to want to see a plan for how Penn State plans to make sure the law is obeyed in the future, and even to interrogate the integrity of the university’s reporting in assault cases that don’t involve the football program.


What would be unfair is for the Middle States Commission on Higher Education to pull Penn State’s accreditation simply because it feels the need to do something, punishing current students by making their degrees worthless. But if it moves forward with the clear goal of preserving what makes Penn State a good school and incentivizing Penn State to become a safer place with a healthier culture, an inquiry into whether the university is meeting the standards for accreditation could play a useful role in Penn State’s reconstitution of itself in the wake of this terrible blot on the school’s collective character and history.