Section V. Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC) Complaint Procedures for its Accredited Institutions
The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC) recognizes the value of information provided by students, employees, and others in determining whether an institution’s performance is consistent with SACSCOC standards for obtaining or maintaining accreditation. The Commission’s interest also is in ensuring that member institutions maintain appropriate grievance procedures and standards of procedural fairness and that the procedures are applied appropriately and consistently.
The procedures for the review of complaints involving member institutions enable SACSCOC to address possible violations of its Principles of Accreditation, the Core Requirements, and policies or procedures, as well as to address possible violations of an institution’s own policies and procedures, if related to the Principles.
Because SACSCOC’s complaint procedures are for the purpose of addressing any significant non-compliance with SACSCOC’s standards, policies, or procedures, the procedures are not intended to be used to involve SACSCOC in disputes between individuals and member institutions, or cause SACSCOC to interpose itself as a reviewing authority in individual matters of admission, grades, granting or transferability of credits, application of academic policies, fees or other financial matters, disciplinary matters or other contractual rights and obligations. Nor does SACSCOC seek redress on an individual’s behalf. Under no circumstances does SACSCOC respond to, or take action on, any complaint or any allegation that contains defamatory statements. Further, SACSCOC will not serve as a grievance panel when the outcome of institutional grievance or appeal processes is unsatisfactory to the complainant.
SACSCOC expects individuals to attempt to resolve the issue through all means available to the complainant, including following the institution’s own published grievance procedures, before submitting a complaint to SACSCOC. Therefore, SACSCOC is under no obligation to consider additional information submitted by the complainant subsequent to the receipt of the formal complaint. SACSCOC’s usual practice is not to consider a complaint that is currently in administrative proceedings, including institutional proceedings, or in litigation. However, if there is substantial, credible evidence that indicates systemic problems with an accredited institution, SACSCOC may, at its discretion, choose to proceed with the review.
In order to be considered, a formal complaint must be submitted in writing using the SACSCOC “Complaint against Institutions: Information Sheet and Form,” signed, and two copies sent to: President, Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, 1866 Southern Lane, Decatur, Georgia, 30033-4097. SACSCOC will entertain neither complaints that are not in writing or which are anonymous, nor will it consider complaints sent electronically or through facsimile transmission. In addition, SACSCOC will not act on complaints submitted on behalf of another individual or complaints forwarded to SACSCOC.
Responsibilities of Institutions
The Principles of Accreditation states:
The institution (a) publishes appropriate and clear procedures for addressing written student complaints, (b) demonstrates that it follows the procedures when resolving them, and (c) maintains a record of student complaints that can be accessed upon request by SACSCOC. (Standard 12.4; Student complaints)
Each institution is required to have in place student complaint policies and procedures that are reasonable, fairly administered, and well publicized. SACSCOC also requires, in accord with federal regulations, that each institution maintains a record of complaints received by the institution. This record is made available to SACSCOC upon request. This record will be reviewed and evaluated by SACSCOC as part of the institution’s decennial evaluation.
Procedures for Filing a Complaint against an Institution
An individual may make an inquiry regarding complaint procedures or about issues and concerns that could be considered complaints; however, the Commission’s response and its obligations to meet the specific timetables outlined in these procedures will begin only after the complainant submits a formal written complaint.
A formal complaint is one that is (1) submitted in writing using the SACSCOC “Complaint against Institutions: Information Sheet and Form,” (2) signed, and (3) sent to the attention of the President of SACSCOC by the complainant(s). SACSCOC will neither entertain complaints that are not in writing or which are anonymous, nor will it consider complaints sent electronically or through facsimile transmission. In addition, SACSCOC does not accept voice recordings, such as recordings of meetings and conversations, as evidence in support of a complainant’s allegations. To submit information from the voice recordings, the complainant should have the tape transcribed, provide a signature page for the complainant to attest to the accuracy of the transcription, and have the signature page notarized. If a complainant has a demonstrated disability that prevents submission of a formal complaint in accord with the guidelines above, he or she should contact the SACSCOC Coordinator of Communications and External Affairs for assistance.
The “Information Sheet and Form” includes:
a. A statement describing the complaint in the clearest possible terms.
b. The section(s) of the Principles of Accreditation alleged to have been violated and the time frame in which the significant lack of compliance is alleged to have occurred.
c. A clear and concise written description of the evidence upon which the allegation is based. (Materials and documentation used to support a complainant’s allegations should be limited to and directly related to the reported case.) The evidence should state relevant facts and document and support the allegation that the institution is in significant violation of the standards referenced in the complaint.
d. A description of the action taken by the institution to date and a copy of the institution’s response to the complainant as a result of prescribed procedures.
e. An acknowledgment that SACSCOC staff may send a copy of the complaint to the president of the institution.
f. Full disclosure about any other external channels the complainant is pursuing, including legal action.
Once the formal written complaint is submitted, SACSCOC and the complainant are responsible for the following:
1. SACSCOC will acknowledge a formal written complaint within 15 business days of its receipt.
2. Within 60 calendar days after acknowledging receipt of the complaint, SACSCOC staff will review the complaint and its documentation and determine (1) whether it is within the scope of SACSCOC policies and is accreditation related, (2) if there is adequate documentation in support of the allegations, and (3) whether the complaint raises significant questions about the institution’s compliance with SACSCOC standards. Normally, SACSCOC considers reviewing a formal complaint if the circumstances leading to it occurred within one year of the formal filing of the complaint or one year within completion of the complaint process at the institution. SACSCOC will inform the complainant regarding the disposition of the complaint to include one of the following:
a. The complaint will not be processed further because it is not within the scope of SACSCOC policies and jurisdiction or there is inadequate documentation to raise questions concerning the institution’s compliance with SACSCOC standards.
b. Where appropriate, a resolution is suggested to the complainant and/or the institution.
c. The complaint has sufficient substance to warrant further review. In this case, SACSCOC will make every effort to expedite the investigation; however, the time required to conduct the investigation may vary considerably depending on the circumstances and nature of the complaint. When a complaint is further investigated, a copy of the complaint will be forwarded to the institution’s chief executive officer who will be asked to respond to SACSCOC within 20 business days. Following the review, the complainant and institution involved will be notified regarding one of the following:
(1) The complaint will not be processed further because there is insufficient evidence of significant non-compliance. The decision of the President of SACSCOC is final.
(2) If there appears to be sufficient evidence of significant non-compliance or if SACSCOC staff are unable to determine compliance, then one of the following actions may be taken by the President of SACSCOC:
(a) Authorize a Special Committee to visit the institution. The Special Committee will examine documents and interview institutional personnel to analyze and make a judgment about compliance, and prepare a report. The report of the committee will be forwarded to the SACCOC Board of Trustees, or one of its standing committees, for review and action at the next meeting of the Board. Following that meeting, the complainant and institution involved will be notified of the decision of the Board.
(b) Forward the case directly to the Board of Trustees and its standing committees for review and action.
(c) Include the case in an upcoming scheduled visit to the institution.
(d) Request additional information. After reviewing the additional information, the President of SACSCOC may decide to take any of the actions as described in (1), (2)(a), (2)(b), or (2)(c) above.
For items (2)(a), (2)(b), or (2)(c) above, the decision of the SACSCOC Board of Trustees is final unless the disposition is one that is otherwise appealable as stated in the SACSCOC policy “Appeals Procedures of the College Delegate Assembly.”
3. If there is a change of staff during the disposition of a formal complaint, the President of SACSCOC will notify the complainant(s) regarding the change, provide the name of the staff member assigned to the institution, and outline a modified schedule for the review of the complaint.
4. Individual complaints will be retained in the SACSCOC files for a period of one year following final formal notification to the complainant regarding the resolution of the complaint. Based on complaints submitted during this period of time and/or on a series of notification letters to previous complainants that suggest a pattern of concern which may evidence a significant lack of compliance with the Principles that was not evident from any one individual complaint, SACSCOC may renew its consideration of the matter for whatever action may be appropriate.
Complaints against SACSCOC Board of Trustees or its Staff
Complaints against SACSCOC are limited to complaints regarding the agency’s standards, procedures, and SACSCOC staff or any other SACSCOC representative. In order to be considered a formal complaint against SACSCOC, a complaint must involve issues broader than a concern about a specific institutional action.
The procedures for filing a complaint are as follows:
1. If the complaint is against a SACSCOC staff member or an agency representative, such as an off-site or on-site visiting team member, the following procedure applies. Examples might include: evidence that a staff member failed to follow SACSCOC policy, evidence of an on-site committee member exhibiting bias against an institution, evidence that a staff member or committee member has a conflict of interest in working with an institutional case, etc.
• The individual should submit a written complaint to the President of SACSCOC that includes a description of the specific complaint accompanied by documentation supporting the allegation.
• The President will acknowledge the complaint within 10 working days of its receipt.
• Following review, the President will inform the complainant of action within 30 days of receipt of the complaint.
2. If the complaint is against the President of SACSCOC, the following procedure applies. Examples might include: evidence of failure to follow SACSCOC policy, evidence of failure to attend to allegations of unfair treatment by a staff member against an institution, etc.
• The individual should submit a written complaint to the Chair of the SACSCOC Board of Trustees that includes a description of the specific complaint. It should be addressed to “SACSCOC Chair of the Board of Trustees” at SACSCOC’s Decatur, Georgia, address.
• The Chair of the Board of Trustees will acknowledge the complaint within 20 working days of its receipt and will designate a committee composed of members of the Executive Council to investigate the complaint and recommend action to the Chair. The investigation may include review of the complaint with the SACSCOC President as well as with the complainant.
• The Chair of the SACSCOC Board of Trustees will review the Council’s action and inform the complainant and the SACSCOC President of action within 45 days of receipt of the complaint.
• Concern that a SACSCOC action was not in accord with the complainant’s expectations is not in and of itself cause for review of the complaint.
3. If the complaint is against SACSCOC or a member of its Board of Trustees, the following procedure applies. Examples might include: evidence that a Board member failed to recuse him or herself from the discussion and vote of an accreditation case where a conflict of interest existed, evidence that SACSCOC failed to apply policy, etc.
• The individual should submit a written complaint to the Chair of SACSCOC Board of Trustees that includes a description of the specific complaint. It should be addressed to “SACSCOC Chair of the Board of Trustees” at SACSCOC’s Decatur, Georgia, address.
• The Chair of the Board of Trustees will acknowledge the complaint within 20 working days of its receipt and will designate a committee composed of members of the Executive Council to investigate the complaint and recommend action to the Chair. The investigation may include review of the complaint with SACSCOC President, the Board of Trustees member, as well as with the complainant.
• The Chair of the Board of Trustees will review the Council’s action and inform the complainant and SACSCOC President of action within 45 days of receipt of the complaint.
• Concern that a SACSCOC action was not in accord with the complainant’s expectations is not in and of itself cause for review of the complaint.
Distinction between Submitting Third-Party Comments and Filing Formal Complaints
SACSCOC is interested in ensuring that member institutions maintain ongoing compliance with SACSCOC standards and policies outside the institution’s scheduled formal review and that member institutions maintain appropriate grievance procedures and standards of procedural fairness that are applied consistently. Therefore, if an individual has evidence of an institution’s significant non-compliance with SACSCOC standards, policies, or procedures, the individual should inform SACSCOC using these procedures.
Third-party comments are submitted by the public at the time of an institution’s formal, scheduled review for the purpose of informing SACSCOC regarding the institution’s ongoing commitment to compliance with SACSCOC standards and policies. Therefore, if an individual wishes to address an institution’s compliance with the Principles of Accreditation at the time of the institution’s formal committee review, he/she should use the policy “Third-Party Comment by the Public.”