UTB transition behind UTRGV probation

EDINBURG — Miscommunication and timing issues during the creation of the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley are confirmed to be behind a recent decision by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges’ decision to place the university on probation, university officials and new documents say.

Officials from UTRGV received a letter from the accrediting association on Tuesday and traveled to Atlanta to meet with SACSCOC officials Wednesday. University officials said they got a clearer explanation of what led to the sanction and a better understanding of how to move off the probationary status.

“What we wanted to also do was to really understand behind-the-scenes what were the issues, what were they thinking of when they were thinking of this transition,” said UTRGV Provost Havidán Rodríguez after the meeting this week.

Rodríguez was accompanied by Deputy President Janna Arney and Deputy Provost Cynthia Brown in their visit to Atlanta, which President Guy Bailey couldn’t attend because of illness that required hospitalization.

UTRGV officials are now tasked with preparing a report to submit to the accreditation agency by Sept. 8, and will receive a visit by a SACSCOC committee in October. The committee will in turn report its findings to the agency, which is expected to make a decision on the university’s accreditation status at its board meeting in December.

“I think what they want is assurance that the issues that arose won’t happen again,” Bailey said Thursday. “It’s not so much to remedy something, but a matter of assurance that there’s accuracy going forward and that we are all on the same page.”

SACSCOC announced its decision to place UTRGV under the year-long probation in December 2016, but very few details for its actions were released until now. UTRGV remains fully accredited throughout this process, however, posing no harm to any past or present students.

The letter received by UTRGV officials, said the university violated 10 standards under the agency’s Principles of Accreditation and confirms the suspicions that most of the issues arose from a complicated and unprecedented transition process involving the University of Texas-Brownsville.

“One of the really unique things that came out of this conversation, is that we are truly an anomaly for them,” Arney said. “They have done mergers and consolidations… but nobody else has had the domino requirements that we had.”

Unlike UT-Pan American, which only had to undergo a change of name to UTRGV before being dissolved as an institution, UTB had to remain an independent institution longer than expected due to a shared accreditation with Texas Southmost College.

Documents showing communications with SACSCOC officials detailed plans to dissolve UTB once TSC received separate accreditation, which was originally expected to happen in June 2015 but was delayed until December 2015.

All of the standards violated were linked to miscommunication regarding UTB’s transition, according to the letter.

“There are a number of issues of significant concern with how the institution addressed continuous institutional operations,” the letter states. “They directly relate to the decisions around the transition of University of Texas Brownsville (UTB) students, faculty, staff, and operations from the former University of Texas Brownsville-Texas Southmost College (UTB-TSC) institution to UTRGV.”

SACSCOC officials were not seeing the transition as just a UTB and UTPA- to-UTRGV process, local officials said. The accreditation agency viewed it as a transition involving four legacy institutions instead of two: UTB; UTPA; TSC; and UTB-TSC to UTRGV, officials stated.

The difference from two legacy institutions to four is what the agency saw as part of the major miscommunication issue to them as an accrediting entity and to the public.

Even though an issue could have been that UTB students were transferred to UTRGV and in some cases awarded UTRGV degrees while UTB was still in existence, Bailey said the agency was clear that these degrees were still valid and the two institutions agreed that this issue will not affect any students.

“Not only was it our priority, but it was also SACSCOC’s priority,” Bailey said. “From the very beginning they told me that they didn’t want anything affecting our students.”

Some of the specific changes requested by the agency is a comprehensive and accurate timeline of the transition to UTRGV to be made public on the university’s website, Rodríguez said. This would allow the public to better understand what led to the creation of the new university and the links to the legacy institutions, including former partnerships such as that with TSC.

UTRGV officials made it clear these are issues that don’t reflect UTRGV’s current academics or procedures, now that the transition is complete, but they must now prove to SACSCOC that appropriate procedures are in place to comply with their principles.

“It’s policies and processes moving forward,” Rodríguez said. “How do we ensure as an institution of higher education that this doesn’t happen again? Making sure that policies are in place… if you take a look at UTPA, we never had those issues with SACSCOC. If you look at UTB we never had those issues.”