U of I accreditors complete review of Phoenix purchase

(UPDATED, 11:22 a.m. Friday, to clarify details from the NWCCU letter.)

Regional accreditors have finished reviewing the University of Idaho’s proposed  University of Phoenix purchase.

This moves the $685 million acquisition one step closer to the finish line. However, it doesn’t represent a ringing endorsement. The Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities went out of its way to say it wasn’t asked to endorse or criticize the plan — and couldn’t weigh in on its financial implications.

“Based on the information available to NWCCU, the commission is unable to make a determination on the impact, financial or otherwise, of the proposed affiliation on the University of Idaho,” commission president Sonny Ramaswamy said in an email to Idaho Education News Tuesday night.

Instead, here’s what NWCCU did do — and what it did say.

In a Feb. 7 letter, the NWCCU said the framework of the Phoenix affiliation “does not constitute a substantive change” for the U of I. Placing the for-profit online school under the umbrella of a U of I-aligned nonprofit does not change the U of I’s mission or its governance.

At this time, the NWCCU doesn’t plan to take further action on the Phoenix deal, Ramaswamy said Tuesday.

Even though the accreditors didn’t endorse the Phoenix purchase, U of I President C. Scott Green hailed the news in a Tuesday email to U of I employees. And the U of I echoed this sentiment in a statement Wednesday. “This decision moves us one step closer to an exciting new chapter for higher education in Idaho and improved access to a better future for its citizens and its industries.”

U of I and Phoenix officials hope to finalize the deal early this year — and there is a nonbinding May 31 opt-out date that could allow either side to walk away from the deal.

But several possible sticking points remain:

  • Four Three Education, the nonprofit governing body, must go into the bond market to finance the Phoenix purchase. On Wednesday, U of I spokeswoman Jodi Walker said she had no timetable on financing.
  • The legal dispute over the purchase might or might not be over. On. Jan 30, Ada County District Judge Jason Scott sided with the State Board of Education in a civil lawsuit over closed-door discussions of the Phoenix purchase — another milestone Green cited in his email to employees. Attorney General Raúl Labrador has said he is considering an appeal to the Idaho Supreme Court. As of Tuesday, no appeal had been filed.
  • Lawmakers might still try to have a say in the matter. Legislation addressing the Phoenix purchase has twice been pulled from the Senate State Affairs Committee’s agenda — and has not yet been made public. The State Board gave the Phoenix purchase the go-ahead on May 18, and in a report to NWCCU, obtained by Idaho Education News through a public records request, the U of I said it needs no additional state approval.

The NWCCU’s letter would appear to take accrediting issues off the table, however. Phoenix’s accrediting body approved the affiliation in November.

More reading: Click here to read our in-depth coverage of the proposed Phoenix purchase.

Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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