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SACS: Probation removed; work left to do

Jack Stripling

Staff Writer

Friday, January 14, 2005

Auburn University's academic probation may be over, but the university's accrediting agency could still elect to place AU back on probation or pull accreditation in the coming year.

An official letter from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, released Friday, calls upon AU to comply with three additional criteria in order to remain in good stead with SACS. Specifically, AU must submit reports on its progress in a presidential search, its conflicts of interest policy for trustees and its evaluation of the president, the SACS letter states.

SACS lifted AU's probation in December, citing the university's efforts to address problems of trustee micromanagement of the university.

While obstacles remain, AU Interim President Ed Richardson said he doesn't feel the Sword of Damocles dangling over his head. "The likelihood of that occurring is so remote, that I wouldn't worry about it - either lightning striking me or SACS going further," Richardson said.

Even so, AU has to submit its reports by Sept. 22 and the accrediting agency has three options. It can call for no further reports, effectively clearing AU; it can request additional reports, which would mean another year of automatic probation; or it can declare AU has made insufficient progress and pull accreditation. Loss of accreditation would cost the university tens of millions of dollars in federal grants and cost AU its membership in the NCAA.

The SACS letter draws attention to what is arguably the key issue for AU faculty. AU must report progress on the search for a permanent president, something the institution hasn't had in four years. Richardson said Thursday he hopes for an evaluation by April, adding that it was "possible" that he'd recommend to the trustees in June that they begin crafting a plan for a presidential search.

Richardson noted that he has work left to do, including a major legislative agenda, and he scoffed at critics who say he's overstaying his welcome.

"The people making those statements have no experience in the administration of large public organizations with multiple pressure points," he said.

Nonetheless, many faculty have voiced concern about Richardson's plans. AU Senate Chair Willie Larkin said the trustees' decision to hold off on talk of a search likely explains SACS' lingering concerns.

"The reason those issues are still unanswered is that Auburn has not been proactive and moved forward and said 'here's what we're going to do,'" Larkin said. "Why not go on and pre-empt SACS and the naysayers and let those things be known?" Lingering concerns

One of the more controversial elements of AU's probation has related to the financial links among trustees. Robert Lowder, a Montgomery banker and trustee, has significant financial dealings with a number of fellow board members. Notably, Lowder's banks did about $2.6 million in business with fellow trustee Jack Miller's law firm in 2003.

The relationships have been reviewed a number of times, and the latest audit echoes the sentiment that the trustees' ties don't violate the board's Code of Ethics. But Richardson said the board will have to adopt standards and criteria for continual evaluation of the trustees' financial links. The board must ultimately approve any such standards, but Richardson said it is conceivable that trustees would be subjected to annual independent audits in addition to the internal audits they now conduct. Remaining questions about the board's policies with regard to business ties may force AU representatives to again plead the university's case before a SACS committee. "There are some questions or they wouldn't have asked for a further report," said Jack Allen, spokesman for SACS.

These questions will likely be addressed by a SACS committee when it visits AU this fall. Richardson said he's not troubled by the continuing of the probe, and he views the end of probation as the end of the SACS saga.

"We are completely clear now," he said.

Auburn Opelika News

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