This story first appeared in Talk of the Town, a weekly newsletter by Spotlight PA’s State College regional bureau featuring the most important news and happenings in north-central Pennsylvania. Sign up for free here.
STATE COLLEGE — Penn State’s accrediting agency is seeking more information from the university about student life, treatment of student-athletes, and use of third-party services for students, with a decision on whether or not to take action slated for July.
During the 2022-23 academic year, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, a federally recognized accrediting service for universities, requested Penn State send materials about student success and institutional ethics policies.
“The requests from the Middle States Commission on Higher Education are part of routine follow-up if MSCHE requires any additional information,” Penn State wrote in an email to Spotlight PA. “Penn State is complying with all MSCHE requests for details and is affirming our compliance with the standards identified by the commission.”
Accrediting agencies like Middle States monitor universities to ensure they follow federal and state regulations, as well as standards set by the agency and approved by the U.S. Department of Education. Students must attend an accredited institution to receive federal financial aid.
An accrediting agency can warn a university its accreditation may be at risk or place a university on probation if the institution violates agency guidelines or federal regulations, for example. The agency can withdraw accreditation or deny future accreditation if problems are not resolved.
Middle States warned Penn State in 2012 that the institution’s accreditation was in jeopardy following the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal and the subsequent Freeh Report, which documented institutional failings that reportedly led to the scandal. Penn State’s accreditation was later reaffirmed.
The accrediting agency’s policy bars the public release of the commission’s request or Penn State’s answers, though a Middle States spokesperson told Spotlight PA in a March email that it sought documents “in response to two different media reports, one relating to an investigation involving student athletes and another relating to alleged hazing by a student organization.”
Last summer, unsealed search warrants revealed that at least one Penn State student-athlete was reportedly extorted in fall 2021 into sending sexually explicit photos and videos — including videos of naked or partially naked people in the football team’s locker room and videos showing multiple men having sex with a woman — to the alleged extortionist. Charges were not filed in the case. The university said at the time that it did not have evidence that the sexual acts in the videos were not consensual.
In February, the university said an internal investigation in 2021 determined that misconduct occurred in the Lion Ambassadors, a student group responsible for giving campus tours to prospective students. However, the university said its review did not substantiate allegations of hazing that a former Lion Ambassador publicly leveled against the program last summer.
A Middle States spokesperson initially told Spotlight PA that the agency would issue a decision related to the requested materials in March or April.
However, according to the commission’s website, Middle States requested additional materials from Penn State in April, including documents that show:
“A campus climate that fosters respect among all constituencies, including but not limited to intercollegiate athletic programs and student groups.”
“Student life programs that are regulated by the same principles and procedures that govern all other programs.”
“Periodic assessment of programs in support of the student experience.”
“Adequate and appropriate institutional review and approval of student support services designed, delivered, or assessed by third-parties.”
What triggered that request is unclear. However, a ProPublica investigation in February revealed that Penn State’s student health insurance provider, UnitedHealthcare, paid the salary of the university employee who coordinates coverage for students, a potential conflict of interest. The university declined to disclose how many other employees are in similar situations or how the public can identify those employees.
The university’s deadline to provide the most recently requested materials is July 5, according to the agency’s website. Middle States plans issue a decision following their receipt, an agency spokesperson wrote in an email to Spotlight PA.
Penn State remains accredited and in good standing with Middle States at this time.
SUPPORT THIS JOURNALISM and help us reinvigorate local news in north-central Pennsylvania at spotlightpa.org/statecollege. Spotlight PA is funded by foundations and readers like you who are committed to accountability and public-service journalism that gets results.