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As Need For Flexible Higher Education Grows, Group Charged With Growing Access To Distance Learning Announces New Leadership

Updated by on Wed, 02/26/2020 - 08:36

Submitted by mlarson on Wed, 05/15/2019 - 08:25

A career veteran of instructional design and student support will lead national nonprofit tasked with expanding distance education’s reach and quality

BOULDER, CO (May 15, 2019) — At a time when access to quality postsecondary education is increasingly critical, a nonprofit charged with increasing the reach of online and other distance education and strengthening protections for its students has selected a new executive with experience in both quality assurance and effective program design to succeed its retiring founding president.

The National Council for State Authorization Reciprocity Agreements (NC-SARA) today announced its selection of Dr. Lori Williams, a 25-year veteran of online higher education, as president and CEO.

Williams brings to the role a rich background in instructional design and student support for online institutions and most recently served in a quality assurance role as an accreditor of higher education institutions. Distance education includes online learning, as well as other types of remote learning, such as faculty members teaching at off-campus locations.

Williams will lead NC-SARA at a key juncture in its history – and at a critical time for distance higher education. More and more students – younger and older, full-time and part-time – are learning online and at a distance as demand for more flexible postsecondary options grows. Because of this, focusing on the quality of distance education is increasingly important. Institutions, accreditors, and state and federal regulators need to work together more effectively to ensure academic integrity and increase student success.

In its five-year history, NC-SARA has expanded access to distance education and enabled more institutions to serve students by streamlining the process of state authorization.

Prior to NC-SARA, regulations for distance education providers varied widely among states. The organization has established a common set of higher standards for financial responsibility and program delivery. Under NC-SARA’s reciprocity agreement, education providers that meet these standards can serve students in all states that have adopted the agreement, removing the previous requirement that they seek state-by-state authorization.

“NC-SARA has created a unified platform for state authorization and oversight of distance education to replace a confusing and ineffective patchwork of variable state practices,” said Paul Lingenfelter, a longtime higher education policy leader and chair of the NC-SARA Board of Directors. “The states can now be a more effective partner with accreditors and institutions in improving the learning and lives of students served through distance education.”

Today, nearly 2,000 institutions across 52 states, districts and territories participate in NC-SARA’s reciprocity agreement. In its next phase of work, NC-SARA plans to continue its focus on strengthening consumer protections and ensuring students who participate in distance learning access top-quality education. This could include, for example, building on existing standards to require evidence that institutions follow best practices for distance education and improving the measures for assessing institutions’ financial stability.

Williams’ background as an expert in online instructional design, a consumer advocate and a student of distance education uniquely positions her to lead this charge.

She has designed online coursework with small and large institutions, giving her an intimate knowledge of the programs, which is key to ensuring quality. Her experience in overseeing student success initiatives, such as career advising, libraries and writing support, also equips her to understand students’ needs and advocate for their best interests. And Williams earned her PhD through distance education while working and raising a family, providing her firsthand perspective as a student.

Most recently, Williams served as Vice President of the WASC Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC), an accrediting body overseeing institutions in California, Hawaii and the Pacific. In this role, Williams also has led in managing accountability and institutions’ alignment with quality standards.

“Williams’ dynamic, incisive leadership style and appetite for guiding inquiry and change should serve NC-SARA well in meeting its challenges and shaping its next phase,” said Jamienne S. Studley, president of WSCUC and a former deputy undersecretary at the U.S. Department of Education. “We have valued her broad experience across higher education, commitments to fairness and student success, curiosity, and energetic management style.”  

Williams will become president and CEO in August following founding president Marshall Hill’s retirement.

What Others Are Saying about Dr. Lori Williams:

“As a member of the Commission on the Regulation of Postsecondary Distance Education, I applaud the appointment of Lori Williams as the next president of NC-SARA.  Her commitment to quality and innovation as shown by her work as a leader in higher education and in accreditation will lead SARA to a next generation.”

– Meg Benke, Provost, SUNY Empire State College

“Lori has experienced higher education via online learning from many vantage points, including as student, administrator and regulator. Her experiences at each level have prepared her for responding to the needs of students, institutions and legislators.  Additionally, her willingness to tackle issues head-on will ensure that NC-SARA will continue to move forward in its quest to benefit higher education and the students it serves.”

– Belle Wheelan, President, Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges

“Lori Williams is one of the most sophisticated and well-versed people I have met on the subject of online and hybrid quality educational learning. As a person, Lori is warm and humble, and she listens well and puts people at ease, qualities critical to leaders of coalitions.”

– Ed Ray, President, Oregon State University

“The Search Committee had the fortunate challenge to consider a group of highly qualified individuals to become NC-SARA’s new president. We were looking for a leader who could build on NC-SARA’s strong legacy to ensure its future success and enhance its value.  We believe we found just that person in Lori Williams and look forward to the visionary and effective leadership she will provide.”

– Teresa Lubbers, Indiana Commissioner for Higher Education, Vice Chair of NC-SARA and Chair of the NC-SARA Presidential Search Committee

“NC-SARA has brought much-needed clarity and stability to the institutions engaged in distance learning. UPCEA members greatly appreciate what NC-SARA has done, coordinating between states to reduce the rising costs and confusion that came before reciprocity. Lori Williams’ appointment as president will be integral to moving the organization forward and continuing this good work."

– Bob Hansen, CEO, UPCEA (University Professional and Continuing Education Association)

"As NC-SARA continues to evolve to keep pace with change and innovation in distance learning, Lori’s deep experience with delivery, regulation and accreditation will ensure that NC-SARA successfully engages key stakeholders to keep students and increased quality at the core." 

– Michael K. Thomas, President & CEO, New England Board of Higher Education



NC-SARA is a non-profit organization created in collaboration with four regional higher education state compacts to facilitate unified, reciprocal agreements among states for authorizing colleges and universities to provide postsecondary distance education. The regional compacts are: the Midwestern Higher Education Compact, the New England Board of Higher Education, the Southern Regional Education Board, and the Western Interstate Commission on Higher Education.


Allison Kopp
678-313-2966 (C)