Most of you probably remember the news from January 2014 when a federal judge in Virginia took it upon himself to substitute his own judgment for that of the accrediting body in an appeal of denial of accreditation. Not only did he overturn the denial, he also slapped the accrediting agency with damages of more than $400,000.
The case could have been the first episode in a new reality series “Accreditors Behaving Badly” as there did seem to be some serious issues with how the staff and volunteers of the accrediting agency had dealt with the institution and its appeal. Nonetheless, the judge went further than any court had ever gone before, even second guessing “vague” Standards and making his own judgments about an institution in what is supposed to be a “peer review” process.
But last week a Federal Appeals Court reversed that lower court decision when it ruled that the judge at the lower court level had wildly overreached. The Appeals Court noted that the lower court had essentially conducted its own trial rather than focusing upon the procedural fairness which should have been the limit of an appeal. Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III wrote the decision for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit and said, in part, “…the district court was remedially aggressive not only in its awarding of a large amount of damages, but also in ordering that the institution in question be reaccredited, thereby overturning the judgment and expertise of an agency that in this case rested on a sound and supportable basis.”
This is an important legal victory because it upholds previous case law that has established a “hands off” approach by courts when it comes to second guessing the professional judgment of accrediting agencies. But even as we celebrate, we should not forget some important lessons to “take away.” Namely, accreditors have a responsibility to remain objective and impartial (no matter how frustrated they may become with a particular program or institution). And we must ALWAYS, ALWAYS follow our published policies and procedures in a consistent manner. Hopefully there won’t be any more episodes of “Accreditors Behaving Badly.”