Penn State University is in jeopardy of losing its accreditation in the wake of the child sex abuse scandal involving former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky. On August 8 — less than a month after the NCAA issued $60 million in sanctions to Penn State — the Middle States Commission on Higher Education has put the university on warning status. Penn State must now document that its finances, governance, and integrity meet Middle States’ standards and that it is not violating federal regulations.
As Judith Eaton, president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, says in Bloomberg, “I’m not aware of any major research university in the US losing its accreditation. It would be extraordinary if it happened.”
94 of the approximately 7,800 colleges and universities in the US lost their accreditation last year.
Losing accreditation would certainly have serious consequences for Penn State students and faculty. Students at schools who have lost their accreditation may not be able to get financial aid or transfer their credits to other colleges and they (and Penn State alumni) may not be able to use their degrees to attend graduate school. Without accreditation, a university cannot apply for federal funds for student loans but also for research.
In 2011, Penn State received $477 million in federal research support and its main campus in State College, Pennsylvania — in whose athletic facilities a number of children were abused by Sandusky — received $44.8 million in need-based financial aid.
Penn State could be placed on probation if Middle State concludes that it has not taken the right steps.
As Eaton notes, the university certainly has the resources to remedy any concerns Middle States has. Nonetheless, for a university of Penn State’s academic reputation — its faculty includes experts in a number of fields who have won prestigious honors such as the Pulitzer Prize — even to be given a warning about its accreditation is indeed an extraordinary development.
Penn State Vice Provost Blannie Bowen said in a statement that “This action has nothing to do with the quality of education our students receive.” But it very well may: Under former late football coach Joe Paterno, and certainly with Sandusky’s assistance, Penn State acquired a national reputation for its athletics program. The Nittany Lions’ legendary prowess on the field translated into generous donations for the university, not to mention lucrative deals with national TV, radio and other media networks. These funds not only enriched the university’s athletics programs, but also the university as a whole; its library, and much else, bears Paterno’s name.
The university’s response to Middle States’ warning will be a first step in understanding whether Penn State football can be separated from Penn State University. To what extent has the university as a whole been tainted by the child sex abuse scandal?
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Photo by Joe Shlabotnik