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SACS report lifts UWA morale

LIVINGSTON — Dr. Richard Holland won’t relax for another 22 days. He probably could.

One year ago, Holland, his faculty and the University of West Alabama Board of Trustees quickly realized they had taken for granted a very important word on most of the school’s literature.

That word? “Accredited.”

With one discomforting analysis, and one very pointed pen, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools placed UWA on academic probation. Without significant changes in a select few management realms, UWA would lose its accreditation — a near death sentence for the rural university.

On Monday, Holland submitted UWA’s written response to a SACS report dated Nov. 5. In that report, UWA was to answer suggestions given by a committee assigned to “investigate” the progress university leaders have made over the past 11 months.

That response, it so happens, was quite short.

“They only had one suggestion for us,” Holland said after The Times obtained a copy of the SACS preliminary report.

As a whole, the SACS committee has given a positive nod to UWA and its Board of Trustees.

“The UWA Board has made significant progress toward resolving the divisive and destructive governance issue which required visits by two SACS Special Committees following a decennial review by a [Commission on Colleges] Reaffirmation Committee in April 2002,” the report said.

In other words, a SACS committee believes UWA has adequately improved the working relationship of the Board and the university.

There’s just one catch: The committee’s report is not the final say in whether UWA is taken off probation.

In order to publish information from the SACS Committee, the same group mandates the following statement be issued:

“The findings of this visiting committee represent a preliminary assessment of the institution at this time; final action on the report rests with the Commission on Colleges.”

On Dec. 5-6, the entire COC will visit UWA and hear a presentation by the SACS committee that has so positively endorsed the changes made at UWA.

“This impressive transformation supports the Special Committee’s conclusion that the University is once again in compliance with the SACS governance standards,” the report says.

In a far cry from the SACS probation notification one year ago, the UWA Board of Trustees has found great favor with its accrediting agency.

“… the Committee members reviewed evidence which indicated that the new leadership of the Board, which was elected in 2004, was consulting with the University President in developing its board agendas…,” the report says. “… [The Committee] also confirmed that the distinction between the Board’s policy-making function and the administration’s responsibility to implement the policy was genuine.”

On Monday, Holland was quick to clarify the status of the SACS report.

“It’s just preliminary right now,” he said. “We still have to get through the December meeting.”

For all practical purposes, the SACS report indicates UWA has taken plenty of measurable steps to eliminate the dark cloud of probation, including making one more correction.

In its report, SACS recommended that UWA “consider developing its own local ‘conflict-of-interest’ principles statement to ensure that there is no room for doubt that Board members commit themselves to maintain an arm’s length relationship regarding any contractual, employment, or personal or familial interests they might have in the institution.”

In Holland’s response to SACS, he said a committee has already been appointed to consider the suggestion and that recommendations will be presented at the next Board of Trustees meeting on Dec. 13.

“We’ve tried to do everything they’ve asked of us,” Holland said. “Our standing committees of the Board are meeting again, and they haven’t met in years.”

More important than blindly following suggestions, though, Holland believes the improvements suggested by SACS will make a tremendous difference among faculty, staff and students.

“It lifts that cloud and it lifts the morale here,” he said.

On Dec. 7, the Commission on Colleges will announce whether UWA has done enough to be cleared of academic probation.