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July 26, 1967


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Julius J. Hoffman, District Judge.


Parsons College has brought this action to enjoin the North Central Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools from effectuating its decision to withdraw the accreditation of the College. The controversy presents novel and far-reaching questions concerning the law governing the accreditation of educational institutions and concerning the role of the courts in that evaluative process.

The complaint was filed on June 27, 1967, on the eve of disaccreditation. By action of the Association on April 6, 1967, the College was to be removed from membership, and thereby from the accredited list, on June 30, 1967. To preserve the status quo until a hearing could be held, the College sought a temporary restraining order, to take effect immediately, postponing the threatened action. By stipulation of the parties, it was agreed that the status quo would be preserved without court order until the disposition of the College's motion for a preliminary injunction, which in turn would remain effective, if granted, until the entry of a final decree upon completion of a full trial on the merits. Hearings on the requested preliminary injunction have been concluded, and the motion for that relief is presented for decision.

The North Central Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools was established in 1895 as a voluntary association of educational institutions, formed for the stated purpose of "the development and maintenance of high standards of excellence for universities, colleges, and secondary schools, the continued improvement of the educational program and the effectiveness of instruction on secondary and college levels." The Association was chartered as a nonprofit corporation under the laws of Illinois in 1963. Its area of operations embraces nineteen states in the central United States, and includes Iowa, the location of Parsons College. In that area, some 493 colleges and universities and 3754 secondary schools have become members. Under the By-Laws of the Association, membership is purely voluntary and must be initiated by the legally designated governing body of the institution seeking admission. The Association reserves the right to develop and establish criteria for the evaluation of colleges, universities, and secondary schools, to establish conditions for continued membership, and to terminate membership by removing an institution from the approved list.

In practice, membership in the Association has come to constitute accreditation for colleges and universities in its region, and the withdrawal of membership constitutes a revocation of accreditation for an institution. The Association is the authoritative accrediting agency for the area, and its actions are accepted as controlling for a variety of purposes and by a variety of institutions, agencies, and individuals. Attendance at an unaccredited college, for example, may prejudice a student's application for graduate study at another institution, and the absence of accreditation may impair the ability of a college to obtain financial support from private and governmental sources. In common understanding, the fact of membership in the Association is tantamount to a certification of educational quality for the member school.

Parsons College is a private liberal arts college in Fairfield, Iowa. Founded in 1875, it became a member of the Association, and was thereby accredited, in 1913. This accreditation was withdrawn in 1948 and restored in 1950. In the mid-fifties, the College embarked upon a new course of development that carried it out of the main stream of traditional private colleges. It sought to serve the needs of students whose poor academic qualifications would have made them inadmissible at conventional schools, including transfer students who had been dismissed for scholastic deficiencies at other colleges. Combined with this goal of providing a second chance, the College sought to demonstrate that an institution of higher learning could be operated successfully solely with the financial resources provided by student tuition charges and fees, without gifts, endowment, or state support. These new policies were implemented in a process of rapid growth and expansion which increased student enrollment from approximately 200 to more than 5,000. The combined pressure of these developments created deficiencies which called its accreditation into question once more. In 1963, the College was placed on probation. With evidence of a trend toward improvement, this probation was removed in 1965 and accreditation was reinstated subject to the stipulation that it be reviewed within three years.

Pursuant to this stipulation, and in accordance with the Association's practice, a team of four experienced educators, trained in evaluative techniques, visited the College on February 23 and 24, 1967. On the basis of the reports prepared by the officers and staff of the College, an examination of College records and files, interviews with faculty, staff, and students, and their own observations, this Examining Team prepared a written report of some thirty-two pages. Following the pattern of the Guide published by the Association in 1966 as a basis for evaluation, the report of the Examining Team addressed itself to seven aspects of the College: its educational purposes and tasks, the availability of resources for carrying them out, the organization and administration of the College, the programs of instruction and curriculum, the faculty and its morale, student life, and student achievement. As a follow-up to the action taken in 1965 with its stipulation for future review, the report of the Examining Team found improvement in some of the noted areas, and hopeful prospects for improvement in others. In still other areas, however, the Team found that improvement which had been hoped for had not been realized, and other deficiencies persisted with no sign of impending change.

For purposes of acting upon questions of accreditation and considering reports of examining committees, the Association subdivides itself into several Commissions consisting of the official representatives of member institutions of like kind. Jurisdiction over colleges such as Parsons is vested in the Commission on Colleges and Universities. This Commission is further subdivided, for purposes of investigation and recommendation, into committees by type of degree granted, with separate committees for institutions conferring doctoral degrees, those granting masters or specialist degrees, those granting bachelors degrees, and junior colleges. Under established practice, the report of the Examining Team for Parsons College was presented for consideration in the first instance to the appropriate Committee by Type. Notice of a meeting of this Committee, to be held on April 3, 1967, to consider the report was sent to Parsons College on March 1, 1967, with an invitation for the attendance of its chief administrative officer and other representatives. The notice advised the College of the practice of the Committee that a copy of the report of the Examining Team is mailed to the institution about one month before the meeting. In fact, the report was mailed some ten days before the meeting.

Pursuant to this invitation, representatives of Parsons attended the meeting, made statements by way of response to the findings of the Examining Team, and answered questions put by the members of the Committee.

In the Association hierarchy, the matter was next referred to the Executive Board of the Commission, which received the report of the Examining Team and of the Committee by Type. Since the annual meeting of the Association was in progress, this Executive Board of the Commission acted upon the question the following day, April 4, 1967, recommending that the College be dropped from membership for "persistent failure on the part of the College to correct certain serious weaknesses in its operation and the Executive Board's lack of confidence in the administrative leadership of the College." This recommendation was transmitted in turn to the full membership of the Commission on Colleges and Universities at its meeting held the next day, April 5. The Commission unanimously voted to accept this recommendation of its Executive Board and to drop Parsons College from membership. Three members of the Committee by Type were present and voted for this action.

Before transmission of this recommendation to the Board of Directors of the full Association for action by the full membership, the Commission offered an opportunity for representatives of the institution involved to consult with the Commission staff to discuss the recommendations and action of the Commission. Although Parsons College was advised of this opportunity to consult and to learn what action had been taken by the Commission, no representative of the College took advantage of the opportunity. This failure was explained in the testimony of the College officers as the product of the impression, which they gained at the hearing of the Committee by Type and from the report of the Examining Team, that no unfavorable action would be recommended. In fact, this impression was accurate to a degree. The Examining Team and the Committee by Type, in recommendations not made available to the College until this suit had been filed, had proposed that Parsons retain its accreditation in a sort of provisional status, subject to conditions to be agreed to by the College, but short of formal probation. The Executive Board disagreed with this suggested course, and voted to drop the College from membership. Reliance upon the favorable impression gained from the subordinate groups, therefore, proved to be unwarranted.

Upon being advised of this action, the College took advantage of the provision made in the By-Laws for an appeal to the Board of Directors of the Association. Pursuant to these By-Laws, a hearing was first conducted by the Executive Board of the Commission, on June 14, 1967. The meeting lasted approximately two hours, during which time the College representative made oral submissions and presented a quantity of evidence in the form of exhibits and affidavits. On June 23, 1967, the Board of Directors of the full Association conducted a similar hearing, in which representatives of the College were again accorded a full hearing. The invitation for these meetings stated that "neither the College nor the Association will have legal counsel present at the time of your appearance," and no counsel attended for either side. The College, however, had the benefit of the assistance of able counsel in preparing its written appeal and the supporting papers.

On June 24, 1967, the College was advised that the Board of Directors had unanimously voted to sustain the action of the Association taken April 6, 1967, discontinuing the accreditation of the College. The report of the decision of the Board of Directors recounted the history of the College's accreditation difficulties, and noted that sufficient time had elapsed to permit correcting serious deficiencies which previously had been excused because of the recency of the College's reorganization. On the basis of circumstances which raised doubt that the College is providing an adequate educational program for its students, especially those of limited ability, the Board of ...

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