Hiwassee College wins accreditation battle
Feb. 13, 2007
NOTE: Photos are available at http://umns.umc.org.
A UMNS Report By Linda Green*
Following another year of legal wrangling, a United Methodist-related college's accreditation remains intact.
A federal judge ruled Feb. 6 in favor of Hiwassee College in Madisonville, Tenn., in a portion of its lawsuit against the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS).
"This is a significant moment in our legal efforts," said the Rev. James Noseworthy, president of Hiwassee. "We have prevailed on one of the several issues of our case. The decision means SACS cannot take steps that would cut off Hiwassee's financial aid or remove accreditation."
The two-year college has been in a legal battle since the association voted in 2004 to remove the school's accreditation over concerns about its financial resources. Hiwassee leaders said the college was financially sound, however, and obtained a restraining order in 2005 to keep the 158-year-old school's accreditation during appeals processes. The school filed its lawsuit that same year in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia.
Due process concerns
In his ruling, U.S. District Judge J. Owen Forrester agreed with the lawsuit's claim that a conflict of interest existed when a SACS representative on the assessment team also sat on the accrediting body's appeals committee.
"This is counter to due process provisions," Noseworthy explained later.
Following review of the Feb. 6 ruling by leaders of the college and the accrediting body, there will be discussion regarding how both parties proceed. Hiwassee's claim for damages is yet to be heard.
"This is an important step but not the final step in our pursuit of justice," Noseworthy said.
The president said Hiwassee is challenging the association in other areas of due process, including issues of "arbitrary and capricious decisions," the association "as a state action on behalf of the U.S. Department of Education," peer review and clarity of standards.
"Hiwassee College continues to provide quality education in a Christian context," he said. "Our academic program is not in question. We have extensive library resources through the Appalachia College Association. Our campus is wireless and high-tech. We provide student-centered learning. We continue to make strides in fiscal areas as well. We are not the same institution we were in 2002. And we have great plans for new initiatives in the near future."
Serving Appalachia and beyond
The judge's ruling arrived as the school launched its annual capital campaign, with a goal this year to raise $608,000. The fund is the source of scholarships for current students.
Last September, the college's fall enrollment was 444 students - a 15 percent increase from the previous year and the school's highest since 1999. Many of Hiwassee's students are the first in their family to attend college. Eighty-eight percent come from Appalachia, 80 percent receive some financial aid and 40 percent get full financial assistance.
The Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools is the accrediting body for institutions of higher education that award associate, baccalaureate, master's or doctoral degrees in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia.
Hiwassee is also accredited by the University Senate of The United Methodist Church and the Tennessee State Department of Education.
Last March, the Division on Education of the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry passed a resolution affirming the denomination's seven two-year colleges, noting that such schools "often educate underserved, under-prepared, and under-resourced individuals."
The resolution supported colleges in "their efforts to preserve their mission and combat external attempts that would threaten their mission or close these institutions."
*Green is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.
News media contact: Linda Green, (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
United Methodist News Service Photos and stories also available at: http://umns.umc.org