An accreditation body investigating recent events at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri, recently notified the school of an upcoming focused visit to further investigate recent governance changes. The decision by the Higher Learning Commission also automatically changed SBU’s accreditation path.
The investigation into SBU started after a complaint filed Aug. 21 by Russell Jackson, a St. Louis attorney who graduated from the school in 1987. His complaint included several citations to Word&Way news reports about the two-year controversy as some leaders of the Missouri Baptist Convention sought to drive out several religion professors.
The HLC decided on Aug. 24 that the complaint warranted review of the institution and requested a response from SBU. The HLC accredits post-secondary educational institutions in 19 mostly midwestern states. It provides SBU’s only overall accreditation, though some individual programs have additional accreditation.
After reviewing the information from SBU responding to the complaint, the HLC’s Institutional Actions Council approved during its Dec. 14-15 meeting an HLC “staff recommendation that a focused visit be scheduled to occur not later than June 1, 2021, to review the impact of recent changes in corporate governance.”
That focused visit is scheduled for May 3-4, though due to COVID-19 it will likely be conducted virtually. SBU will be responsible for the HLC fees and expenses to conduct the visit. Without this action, SBU’s next scheduled HLC review would not have been until its next 10-year accreditation comprehensive evaluation during the 2025-2026 academic year.
In accordance with HLC policies, the scheduling of this visit also automatically changed SBU’s path for maintaining accreditation. In the “open pathway,” in which SBU had been on, an institution only faces a comprehensive evaluation every 10 years, with a smaller assurance review on the fourth year of that cycle.
When a school faces a focused visit, the HLC automatically moves that school to the “standard pathway,” where an institution undergoes the full comprehensive evaluation in both the fourth and tenth years of the cycle. SBU just finished its fourth-year assurance review in January of 2020, so the change in path won’t immediately bring significant changes.
The initial complaint to the HLC raised concerns that “the school’s academic integrity is about to be irrevocably sacrificed by trustees who have conflicts of interest and are about to breach their fiduciary duty to the university.” In particular, the complaint pointed to efforts to remove religion professors and MBC demands for new governing documents.
Since the complaint’s filing, the new governance documents for the school were approved, which included a number of changes like naming the MBC as the sole corporate member to give the MBC greater institutional control. Additionally, SBU President Eric Turner, who clashed with MBC leaders over the direction of the school, resigned since the HLC’s inquiry started.
Following the filing of the initial complaint, SBU and MBC leaders downplayed it. MBC Executive Director John Yeats in October attacked Word&Way’s reporting on what he called the “misguided accusations related to accreditation.” Speaking about the earlier round of review before the HLC’s decision for a focused visit, Yeats insisted “this inquiry will be closed as unfounded.”
SBU did not respond to Word&Way’s request for comment about the HLC’s scheduling of a focused visit.