ATLANTA (CN) - Lambuth University, a 167-year-old Methodist school in Jackson, Tenn., accuses the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges of unfairly "stripping Lambuth's accreditation," which could force its 456 students to look for another college.
The Decatur, Ga.-based SACS stripped Lambuth of its regional accreditation in February.
Lambuth asked the Federal Court to enjoin SACS from revoking its accreditation. It claims the SACS decision "violated common law due process because the decision was arbitrary and unreasonable and because SACS failed to follow its policies, rules and practices prior to stripping Lambuth's accreditation."
If the decision is upheld, Lambuth says it will "suffer catastrophic and irreparable harm."
Without regional accreditation, Lambuth will be ineligible for federal financial aid available through Title IV or state financial from Tennessee.
About 70 percent of Lambuth's students rely on state or federal financial aid for their education, according to the complaint.
SACS is one of six regional accreditation agencies recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. It accredits colleges in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia.
The trouble began in 2008, when Lambuth began preparing for its 10-year SACS reaffirmation, scheduled for June 2009.
In its 27-page complaint, Lambuth says the recession hurt its endowment, as it did to colleges and universities throughout the country. Lambuth lost two donors who had pledged almost $8 million to the school.
Lambuth also lost several key leaders, including its president, chief financial officer, vice president for development, vice president of academic affairs and vice president of enrollment.
"The convergence of the global economic crisis along with the loss of institutional leadership and pledged giving propelled Lambuth into a sort of 'perfect storm.' To recover from the storm, the university would need time to rebuild," the school says in its complaint.
On July 13, 2009, Lambuth received notification that the SACS had denied its bid for reaccreditation. It was placed on probation for 6 months. SACS identified 13 areas of noncompliance, which are not specified in the complaint.
Except for the SACS Appeals Committee, the Board of Trustees of the SACS Commission on Colleges (the commission) is the final decision-making body, according to the complaint.
Lambuth says the 6-month probation period was unusual - that probation is typically for 12 months.
In addition, "the commission's decision to put Lambuth directly on probation instead of a warning was particularly surprising given the fact that the university had not had any commission reviews for eight years. In fact, the administrative demonstrates that in Lambuth's 55-year history with the commission, the university has never been placed on warning or probation," the complaint states.
Lambuth also claims it was "not provided a full-two year monitoring period."
Lambuth says the commission's decision was unreasonable, as it had made significant progress, including cutting $3.3 million in expenses for fiscal year 2010 compared to fiscal year 2009. And it says it hired an "experienced and qualified financial aid director."
Lambuth University, which is affiliated with the United Methodist Church, began in 1843, as the Memphis Conference Female Institute. It was one of the first colleges in western Tennessee.
The liberal arts school offers four degrees in 59 areas of study, including education, social work, business and Christian ministries. Annual tuition for an on-campus student is $29,473.00.
Lambuth University is represented by Andrew C. Matteson and Dallas R. Ivey with Lawson & Moseley.
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