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Penn State Sanctions: Accreditation Warning Is Bad News, but Not the Worst News

Penn State may be moving forward with its NCAA sanctions, but just as that chapter draws to a close, a new crisis looms for the university: the potential loss of accreditation.

The governing body in charge of accreditation notified Penn State last week that it was issuing a warning about the school in the wake of the last nine months, as The Patriot-News reports:  

The Middle States Commission on Higher Education notified the university Aug. 8 that it has issued an accreditation warning based on information contained in the Freeh Report and the consent decree with the NCAA, President Rodney Erickson said on the school’s website.

The commission stressed that Penn State’s accreditation remains intact.

This, of course, is frightening news. Diplomas from unaccredited universities don't exactly sparkle on resumes, and the Big Ten isn't the type of conference that's keen on keeping a school without accreditation around. So Penn State's very future is at stake here.

At the same time, though, a warning is just that: only a warning. And per StateCollege.com, Penn State's vice provost of academic affairs, Blannie Bowen, reminded everyone that Penn State isn't necessarily doomed here:

It is critical to emphasize that Middle States does not issue a warning unless the commission believes that an institution has the capacity to make appropriate improvements within a reasonable period and then sustain itself to stay in compliance. This certainly is true for Penn State. We're confident that our monitoring report and the site visit will confirm this to the commission.

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Moreover, Bowen emphasized that this warning isn't about Penn State's current educational quality. 

This action has nothing to do with the quality of education our students receive. Middle States is focusing on governance, integrity and financial issues related to information in the Freeh Report and other items related to our current situation.

In other words, this is more about the factors that led to the consent decree than the consequences of the decree, and that's critically important for Penn State. The decree comes with standards for Penn State to meet, and while they're tough standards, they're also ones by which most schools ought to be conducting themselves in the first place.

It follows, then, that should Penn State abide by the decree and keep its house in order—something that newly appointed compliance officer George Mitchell should be instrumental in ensuring—accreditation won't be threatened.

In fact, the only result of the consent decree that ought to threaten accreditation is the steep financial penalties, and there, this gets a little murky.

Remember Pennsylvania Manufacturers' Association Insurance? They're the insurance company that's suing to keep from covering Penn State's legal liability in the upcoming civil cases against the university—cases that are so damning based on the school's acceptance of the decree that Penn State will settle out of court whenever possible.

PMA's legal battle with Penn State is still in the beginning stages, and the question of whether or not the school can remain financially viable through the court battles and financial penalties of the decree could very well hinge on the ruling in that case. Penn State has already lost two preliminary battles with PMA, per The Legal Intelligencer, but those are just related to the venue of the court proceedings.

So yes, this is bad news, and the specter of being an unaccredited university is real for Penn State. But the confidence Bowen has in her school's ability to keep its accreditation is also real, and if everything's on the up and up in Happy Valley, this threat will likely soon pass.

 

Lead image courtesy of whtc.com.

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