Florida Sues U.S. Department of Education Over University Accreditation Process

Jackie Llanos, Florida Phoenix

In his latest move against the Biden administration, Gov. Ron DeSantis announced Thursday that Florida has sued the U.S. Department of Education for attempting to block its plan to find another accreditation authority for state colleges and universities.

Florida filed a 41-page complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida on Wednesday against top officials of the federal department. Both DeSantis and Attorney General Ashley Moody appeared during a news conference to complain that it allows the accreditation organizations too much power over universities’ access to federal funding.

“Within the next couple years, I think we’re going to see this accreditation cartel, basically, come crumbling down, and more freedom in higher education reigning supreme,” DeSantis said.

In the past, DeSantis has complained about public colleges and universities “indoctrinating” students and of being bloated bureaucracies.

Under the Higher Education Opportunity Act, institutions must meet standards set by a recognized accrediting agency to qualify for federal student aid. In Florida’s case, that agency is the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.

The complaint points to instances when the organization investigated Florida universities or warned them against decisions such as considering then-Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran for Florida State University’s presidency in 2021, which it saw as a conflict of interest.

Moody complained the system violates numerous provisions of the U.S. Constitution, including delegating too much authority to the accreditation agencies. The lawsuit also argues that the process of accessing federal student aid violates the spending clause by not providing fair notice of the conditions required to access the funds.

“We reject the idea that a totally uncountable, unappointed, unelected accrediting agency can trump what the state of Florida is doing,” DeSantis said.

Fundamental misunderstanding

DeSantis’ interpretation of the process demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of how accrediting bodies function, said Andrew Gothard, president of the United Faculty of Florida union.

“Accrediting bodies are not elected,” he said. “But they’re also not unilateral actors that impose will from above. Accrediting bodies are composed of the institutions that make up those bodies.”

Florida’s Legislature had already tried to shake off the influence of the accrediting agencies through a bill DeSantis signed last year. Besides establishing post-tenure review for professors, eroding the tenure’s system’s protection of the right to free inquiry, SB 7044 requires higher education institutions to switch accrediting agencies every five years.

However, the U.S. Department of Education pushed back against the change, issuing a written warning that academic institutions need its approval to shift accrediting agencies, to prevent schools from jumping to a more lenient agency.

State University System Chancellor Ray Rodrigues said during the press conference that the federal government is delaying a decision about whether to accept University of Central Florida’s request to seek a new accrediting agency.

“Six months later we still don’t have an answer,” he said. “The Department of Education holds themselves up as if their action is to protect quality, and that’s why they are delaying their response.”

Jumping from agency to agency could damage Florida’s colleges and universities beyond DeSantis’ tenure, Gothard said.

“We need the best quality of creditors because we built this higher education system over decades, long before Gov. DeSantis got here and decided it was time to dismantle the work that we had done,” he said.

Florida Phoenix is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Florida Phoenix maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Diane Rado for questions: info@floridaphoenix.com. Follow Florida Phoenix on Facebook and Twitter.

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