November 15, 2022

Feds Tell Accreditor SACS to Shape Up, Examine Keiser University

Feds Tell Accreditor SACS to Shape Up, Examine Keiser University

The U.S. Department of Education last month determined that one of the country’s major accreditors of colleges and universities is out of compliance with numerous federal regulations. It also directed the accreditor, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACS), to provide more information regarding its oversight of Florida-based Keiser University and about that school’s controversial conversion from for-profit to non-profit status.

But SACS’s recent rejection of a new complaint about Keiser suggests that the accreditor is not yet focused on holding schools accountable in the way the Department now seems to want. 

Both SACS’s rejection of the complaint, which was filed by Robert Shireman, a former senior official of the Department, and the Department’s letter to SACS, are, I believe, being reported here for the first time.

In a seven-page letter dated October 19, addressed to SACS president Belle Wheelan, Deputy Under Secretary of Education Jordan Matsudaira listed more than two dozen accreditor standards that he concluded SACS had failed to meet, many of them relating to failure to provide documentation and information about policies and actions. Matsudaira’s decision ratified the recommendations of both the Department’s accreditation unit and its outside advisory committee, NACIQI, that evaluates accreditors. Matsudaira determined that the Department will renew its recognition of SACS for four years, subject to the Department evaluating a compliance report that SACS must submit in a year. 

The Department’s letter to SACS has surfaced online. I now understand that, even though the Department already sent the letter to SACS, it is now making some minor changes to the text, without significantly changing the substance or changing the outcome, and that a revised letter will be sent. (The Department has not responded to my request for comment.) [UPDATE 11-18-22 11:00 am: The Department of Education had actually posted the October 19 version of the letter to SACS online here.] [UPDATE 11-18-22: A corrected letter to SACS, dated November 7, is now posted at that same link.]

Near the end of the letter, Matsudaira cites two additional issues raised this summer at a meeting of NACIQI, and also in comments submitted to the Department by members of the public. 

First, Robert Shireman, now a member of NACIQI, has highlighted how SACS has enforced arcane and unnecessary barriers to individuals seeking to complain to the accreditor about problems at particular schools — barriers Shireman himself encountered when trying to raise issues with SACS regarding Keiser University. “Complaints,” Matsudaira writes, “were rejected for seemingly procedural or administrative shortcomings by the individuals attempting to file, rather than any finding by the Agency that the institution in question was in compliance.” Matsudaira directs SACS to review its processes and analyze whether they “are appropriately weighted to balance the need to avoid frivolous complaints with the potential for procedural and administrative hurdles to undermine individuals’ efforts to call potential areas of institutional noncompliance to your attention.”

Second, Matsudaira asks SACS to respond to substantive issues raised by Shireman at the NACIQI meeting regarding the accreditor’s “oversight of the potential conflicts of interest and tax issues surrounding the transition from the for-profit Keiser University to the not-for-profit Everglades College and University.” Everglades College is the name of the non-profit, controlled by Floridian Arthur Keiser, that in 2011 purchased for-profit Keiser University, then owned by the same Arthur Keiser, and now operates both that school and a separate career school called Everglades University. Keiser and his wife, Belinda, also own for-profit Southeastern College.

Republic Report has long reported on aggressive student recruiting practices at Arthur Keiser’s schools — tactics that have gotten the schools in trouble with state and federal law enforcement — as well as numerous other abuses, including misuse of non-profit status to benefit the for-profit interests of Arthur Keiser, his family, and close associates. 

Senior members of Congress this year have called on the Department to investigate Keiser University.

Remarkably, the chairman of the Department’s accreditation oversight committee, NACIQI, is the same Arthur Keiser, who was appointed by House Republicans to serve on the panel and then elected chair by committee members during the Trump administration. (Keiser recused himself from the part of the July NACIQI meeting that reviewed SACS.)

In advance of July’s NACIQI meeting, I submitted an extensive written comment asking the Department, in its review of SACS’s application for renewal, to consider the failure of SACS to hold accountable for abuses three schools connected to Keiser.

At the meeting, Robert Shireman extensively questioned representatives of SACS about the Keiser non-profit conversion. (I also delivered a brief comment about SACS and Keiser.) 

At the end of that discussion at the NACIQI meeting, Belle Wheelan, the president of SACS, seemed to pledge to take seriously the issues related to Keiser: “Regarding Mr. Halperin’s comments… Keiser, I believe, is about to do their fifth year review. And the financial and personnel issues that you identified would be a part of that review, so we’ll go back and see if there’s anything there. I still say that we were found in compliance with our process eleven years ago when this case came to be an issue. But we will do our due diligence this time in reviewing them again.” 

But after Shireman on August 9 submitted to SACS a renewed complaint regarding the accreditor’s oversight of Keiser, SACS rejected the complaint via a letter, dated September 19, that was filled with repeated boilerplate rejections and invocations of procedural technicalities. SAC’s letter to Shireman was nine pages long but said very little about the substance of the issues; it hardly seemed to reflect due diligence on SACS’s part.

The new letter from Deputy Under Secretary Matsudaira to SACS at least provides hope that the Department is ending its long tradition of sleepwalking through accreditor oversight with boilerplate recitations of its own. Matsudaira’s letter to SACS concludes with another piece of standard language, but language that perhaps will now be taken seriously, warning of the consequences of accreditor disobedience: “I trust that SACSCOC will be able to come into full compliance with the criterion cited above by the deadline… However, I wish to remind you that if SACSCOC does not come into full compliance with the criteria identified above, the Department may be compelled to limit, suspend, or terminate SACSCOC’s recognition.”

Meanwhile, as the Department was directing SACS to take seriously its oversight of Keiser University, lawyers for Keiser urged in court last week that a federal judge should reject a landmark settlement that would allow thousands of ripped-off career college students to have their federal loans cancelled; Keiser University objects to being on the list of 150 troubled colleges whose students claims will automatically be treated as valid, so it is trying to sink the whole deal. [UPDATE 11-16-22 10:00 pm: The judge tonight rejected Keiser University’s arguments and approved the settlement.]

As to Arthur Keiser himself, he has been busy attending a fundraiser this month for the Keiser University Aquatic Center, where attendees included Arthur Benjamin, a Florida socialite and former CEO of ATI, a for-profit college shut down after being sued by the Justice Department for systematic fraud. Also, Keiser and Keiser advertising contractor and enthusiastic Keiser family booster (and college regulation foe) Mitch Talenfeld apparently were recently stuck in an elevator with a group of men including Keiser’s fellow Massachusetts roofing enthusiast Arvid Albanese.

UPDATE 11-16-22 5:00 am: Hours after we posted this article, all the items from LinkedIn that we linked to just above — a comment by Mitch Talenfeld praising Arthur Keiser’s son Robert, an essay by Talenfeld criticizing Biden administration regulations and Under Secretary of Education James Kvaal, and a photo posted by Talenfeld of him, Keiser, Albanese, Everglades University board chair Greg Wallick, and five other men in an elevator — seem to have all disappeared (at least for me, although Talenfeld’s profile remains visible). 

Feds Tell Accreditor SACS to Shape Up, Examine Keiser University

Talenfeld’s essay, posted earlier this month, described an appearance by Kvaal at a November 2 meeting in Phoenix of the for-profit college lobby group Career Education Colleges and Universities as “one of the most disingenuous and alarming dialogues I have ever experienced.” Kvaal, he wrote, “glossed over how problematic new regulations were, ignoring concerns about the broad-sweeping power the government created for itself (under the guise of protecting students).” Talenfeld was criticizing new Department of Education “borrower defense” regulations — aimed at giving former students who have been ripped off by their schools a path to having their federal loan debts cancelled — for cracking down on deceptive and aggressive recruiting. He worried that schools will now be “responsible for ‘indirect’ actions (or inactions) of #leadgeneration vendors, Online Program Managers (OPMs), and others that market to your students. Based on these newly expanded rules, Folks, every school is guilty of something.”  He continued, “These new U.S. Department of Education #regulations can be used to attack any nonprofit or for-profit school, college, or university, forcing them to pay millions of dollars of loans taken out by the students for something they did not do, could not control, may not have known about, and worst of all, may not have hurt anyone. Even scarier, Kvaal also stated at the meeting that one of the Department’s next moves is to go after executives working at those institutions.” He concluded, “One person or group of unelected people in America should never be able to expand regulations and declare themselves the judge, jury, and executor of a company or institution they go after (remember, every school is guilty under these new regulations) and have the power to destroy them by withholding operating funds without due process, making it almost impossible for accused institutions to defend themselves.”] 

UPDATE 11-17-22 9:45 am:

Mr. Talenfeld this morning, on LinkedIn, said he was “attacked yesterday for my LinkedIn postings for exposing details about unfair laws that could harm millions of students, my friendship and admiration and affection for Robert M. Keiser, Ph.D. M.B.A., and a picture of some friends caught in an elevator, one of whom was Arthur Keiser.” He reposted the elevator picture and again extensively praised the Keisers.