Sylvia Manning, president of one of the nation's six regional accrediting organizations, has announced that she will step down in July after six years in office.
Ms. Manning, who is 69, has led the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools through an unusual amount of controversy and a period of enormous change in the organization and in higher education in general. The commission, which oversees just over 1,000 colleges in 19 states, has overhauled the processes and policies by which its members become and remain accredited.
During her tenure, the commission has come under scrutiny from the inspector general of the federal Education Department, from members of Congress, and from college officials upset by the accreditor's decisions.
Much of the attention has fallen on the commission's oversight of for-profit colleges, with critics accusing the accreditor of sometimes handling those colleges with kid gloves.
Even with the criticism, the commission's reputation has shifted drastically under Ms. Manning's leadership, to one that would take a much harder look at proprietary colleges in particular.
For example, in 2010 the commission denied a request to transfer the accreditation of Dana College, a small, religiously affiliated institution in Nebraska, to a group of private investors who said they would buy the college and save it from financial ruin. Soon afterward, Dana shut its doors.
Ashford University, a for-profit college that gained accreditation from the purchase of a small Roman Catholic college in Iowa, was forced to apply to another regional accreditor, the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, because of the Higher Learning Commission's new policy requiring the institutions it oversees to have a substantial presence in its 19-state region. Most of Ashford's business operations and staff members are in California.
Her Most Important Legacy
That move prompted a stringent review of Ashford by the Western Association, which initially denied the university's application for accreditation.
Earlier this year, the commission put the University of Phoenix on notice over concerns about governance, student assessment, and doctoral programs. And the commission ordered a halt to enrollments in Ivy Bridge College—a partnership between Tiffin University, a private nonprofit institution in Ohio, and the for-profit Altius Education. The commission charged that the online associate-degree program had problems with academic rigor, student retention, and the quality of its course content.
But Ms. Manning said she did not regard the commission's actions to limit for-profit colleges as the important part of her legacy.
Instead, Ms. Manning stressed the importance of the changes in how the commission reviews new and existing members, and especially its move from a paper-based system to one that is entirely electronic. About the only thing that hasn't changed during her time at the commission is its name, she quipped.
The demands of the job and the political pressure exerted on the commission are not the reason for her retirement, Ms. Manning said.
"I'm getting older every day," she said. "That's really the entire story. It's just time for me to hang it up."
And her retirement plans? Spending more time with her dog and her grandchildren.
Correction (11/14/2013, 11:30 a.m.): The original version of this article included an incorrect count of the colleges that are overseen by the Higher Learning Commission. It is just over 1,000, not 3,500. The article has been updated to reflect this correction.