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JANUARY 16, 2002

On Tuesday, January 15, 2002, United States District Court Judge J. Owen Forrester issued a ruling in Auburn University's lawsuit against the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools ("SACS"), which clearly vindicates the decision by the University to file the lawsuit. Noting "the inauspicious manner in which SACS began its investigation," the Court found that "[t]he University has cause for its concerns." The Court then held that Auburn is entitled to due process while SACS conducts its investigation, and the Court imposed important limitations on SACS in order to protect the University's rights.

The Court began its analysis by expressing concerns over the way in which SACS has conducted its investigation to date. For example, "[a]s this case began, [Auburn] faced investigation under the 'Special Committee' process which has no provision for meaningful notice and opportunity to be heard." * Moreover, SACS initially threatened to investigate all matters raised in the complaints filed against the University, whether they related to accreditation or not. It is noteworthy that SACS later agreed in a hearing before the Court to narrow the scope of its investigation to those issues that specifically relate to Auburn's accreditation. Also noteworthy is the Court's conclusion that "[g]iven the appearance of partisan inclinations that might be inferred from the beginning of the investigation, SACS' defense that no one has actually been harmed yet is of little solace."

Based on these and other concerns, the Court imposed several important limitations on SACS as it moves forward with its investigation. "If a federal surrogate is to propose policy or judge state-appointed trustees, considerations of comity alone dictate a fastidiously fair protocol." First, SACS must follow its own policies and procedures for reviewing formal complaints, including affording Auburn meaningful notice and an opportunity to respond to the complaints made against it.

Second, the Court ordered SACS to limit the scope of its investigation to those issues that legitimately relate to Auburn's accreditation. SACS may not, for example, investigate "whether Auburn complied with Alabama's open meeting laws, the manner in which trustees are selected for Auburn University, or the authority of the trustees to remove or select the University president." Furthermore, SACS may not investigate the adoption by the Board of Trustees of minimum standards for admission, retention, and graduation, or a new grade forgiveness policy, because even under SACS' own Criteria for Accreditation, "it is the Board's responsibility to set general institutional policies."

The Court then identified the following issues as being within the scope of SACS' Criteria for Accreditation and, therefore, appropriate areas for SACS to review: the alleged lack of institutional control over athletics; the denial of tenure to Professor Charles Curran; the alleged micro-management by the Board of Trustees; and alleged business dealings among the Trustees and the University. Again, SACS must follow specific procedures for reviewing such allegations, including consideration of any steps the University has already taken to address such issues.

Finally, the Court held that the use of a Special Committee "would violate SACS' own rules and, therefore, deny due process to Auburn." Similarly, at this stage of the proceeding, the Court found insufficient evidence to determine whether certain members of SACS' staff have a disqualifying conflict of interest in this matter. But the Court will allow Auburn to conduct additional discovery to determine whether in fact such a conflict exists.

Click here to read the full court ruling.