Criswell says accrediting agency erred

DALLAS?Criswell College is off probation from its accrediting agency after a year of the school seeking recourse for what it said was a $6 million auditing error from the agency that resulted in a “PR nightmare.”

In spring 2007, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) charged Criswell College with financial instability and mismanagement and placed the school on probation.

“They read the wrong line to determine income, especially the income of KCBI [the school’s radio station],” said Lamar Cooper, Criswell’s provost. “They read a line of $3 million total income and some change as a $3 million liability and a deficit, and then concluded that KCBI was $3 million in the red. Therefore, the college was $3 million in the red.”

The problem for Criswell and other schools where SACS auditing errors have occurred, said Criswell Provost Lamar Cooper, is that SACS offers no formal recourse until the next year when the agency’s Commission on Colleges reviews member schools.

“In the meantime, we went back and carefully laid it all out,” Cooper said. “We sent [documentation] to them and said, ‘You really need to find some process of redress because it’s a PR nightmare for us and a drag on enrollment if people think your school is on probation.’ And the trustees passed a resolution saying they should inform us why we shouldn’t file suit for damages.”

Cooper said once the mistake was documented and sent to SACS, the agency was unwilling to discuss the issue beyond a promise that a review committee would study the case later.

When contacted by the TEXAN, Tom E. Benberg, vice president and chief of staff at the Commission on Colleges in Atlanta, said: “The executive council of the commission conducted a special review and acknowledged that while there was a modest error, it wasn’t material, that is, it wasn’t substantial enough” to warrant changing the school’s status.

Benberg said recourse was available through the review of the executive council.

“They reviewed all the materials, the case in its entirety, and decided that the right decision had been made,” Benberg added while acknowledging that a difference of opinion exists between the agency and the school on whether Criswell was compliant with SACS financial guidelines.

A review committee came to Dallas in March and resolved the issue in less than a day through a review process that typically takes several days, Cooper said. At no time did Criswell lose accreditation, Cooper emphasized.

“The removal of probation, in our thinking, was good but not the best way to go about it because it still suggests that you are out of compliance, which we never were. We have not given up on it. We are going to seek to get policies changed so that schools that get caught in this and who can demonstrate that a mistake was made in the assessment of their situation may have due process.”

The probation came during the same year that a $3 million lead gift for an endowed scholarship was announced from Curtis and Shirley Baker of Lindale. Earlier this year, an endowed counseling chair funded by June Hunt of Dallas was announced.

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