The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill may be at risk of losing its accreditation after recent accusations of racism and corruption. 

When the denial of tenure to journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones gained national attention, staff at the university’s accrediting agency, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, started “monitoring the situation,” says Nuria Cuevas, the vice president of the SACSCOC. 

The information brought to light by news media was enough to trigger an inquiry where staff requested certain information from the university, Cuevas says. 

“We haven’t received the information yet from them, so it’s hard to know at this point (whether it could affect accreditation),” Cuevas says. “Once we receive it, if we find that there’s factual accreditation-related information, we forward it on to our board for our review.”

Accreditation is the process through which universities become eligible for federal funding. It also sets a standard for higher education. In addition to educational requirements, UNC-Chapel Hill is required to operate with integrity and demonstrate a dedication to continuous improvement. It must also have a governing board not excessively influenced by others (including lawmakers, donors, or prominent alumni), employ qualified faculty, preserve academic freedom, and provide resources to support student success.

Cuevas declined to comment on the specific accreditation standards the association is evaluating at UNC-Chapel Hill. From the time an inquiry begins, it typically takes six to eight weeks to make a decision about whether to continue investigating.

Reports of racial bias and a lack of diversity among faculty and staff have put universities at risk of losing accreditation in the past. Last week, the Tulane University School of Medicine was put on probation after a Black faculty member filed a lawsuit alleging discrimination. Similarly, UNC-Chapel Hill could come under the microscope because of its lack of diversity or allegations of racism from students and staff.

SACSCOC doesn’t have a specific accreditation requirement related to diversity, Cuevas says, but it does have a “position statement” that acts as a kind of guiding principle for universities and colleges. 

“Our primary concern, really, is institutional quality and student success,” Cuevas says. “That’s always foremost, is the wellbeing of students, the educational programs and the educational experience.”

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