Parents beam with pride as they send their young adult children off to colleges and universities. It’s the board’s job to provide the proper oversight that will ensure that the institution will give them a proper education that will serve their purposes for independent living and a rewarding career as they enter the world as fully-fledged adults. Higher education boards are also responsible to ensure that students will be physically and emotionally safe, that their personal information will be safe, that they’ll be treated fairly, and that the laws will be followed.
That said, every higher education institution must be proactive and prepared to assess and address any legal risk that might present that would jeopardize a student’s health and well-being. This duty requires having a good understanding of the top 10 legal issues in higher education and how to mitigate those risks.
According to AGB, the top 10 legal issues in higher education are:
According to the Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Misconduct, the rates of sexual assault increased slightly over the past four years. The people who were most likely to become victims are more aware of how to report incidents and how to access help than they were four years ago, but the number of reports continues to be low. Women and non-cisgender students are the most likely populations to victimized by sexual conduct than men.
Risky Student Behavior
Data acquired from the Center for Adolescent Research and Education and SADD indicate that the first semester of college report engaging in risky behavior. Somewhere between a fourth to half of all first-year college students engaged in risky behaviors for the first time such as drinking alcohol, using drugs, driving while impaired, engaging in intimate sexual behavior, and having sexual intercourse. Boards should be aware of the need for education and prevention efforts before college entrance and in the early stages of the college experience.
The top tech issue facing higher education leaders is information security. According to a number of surveys and interviews, CISOs indicated that college and university boards need to monitor cybersecurity risks such as phishing, user education, cloud security, having a comprehensive cybersecurity strategy, next-generation security technology planning, identity and access management, governance over data security, and unsecured personal devices.
The internet has made it practical, convenient, and cost-effective for young and older adults to obtain a college degree. On the flip side, this report states that fully online course work contributes to socioeconomic and racial achievement gaps. Online education is the fastest-growing segment for colleges and universities and growth in the for-profit sector is over-represented. Boards should also be aware of concerns about the quality and value of online learning which many believe is inferior. Underprepared or disadvantaged students may experience poor outcomes. Interactivity between instructors and students may lead to improved outcomes.
Affirmative Action in Admissions and Financial Aid
In a move that upholds affirmative action, a recent court decision allows colleges and universities to consider race as a factor in the admissions process. Talent exists in every community and group. Diversity is just as valuable in the classroom as it is in the boardroom because people with a variety of backgrounds and viewpoints that come together for robust discussions enhance the learning for all students.
Colleges and universities employ or contract with a host of professionals that aren’t members of the faculty. Boards should be cognizant that legal issues may surface with professionals or with professors. Legal issues in the workplace may fall into the categories of job security, promises in an appointment letter, heavy workloads, broken promises, harassment, office politics, bullying, errors or omissions in personnel files, and delays or other issues with tenure. Professionals and professors will be ready to advocate for their best interest and the board should be able to as well.
Statutory and Regulatory Compliance Issues
Two issues stand out with compliance issues in higher education and that is the cost for compliance and keeping up with the large number and rapidly changing regulations. Vanderbilt University and the Boston Consulting Group assessed the university’s compliance costs in 2015 and found that they spent $146 million during the 2013-2014 school year which was 11% of their non-hospital operating budget. The University of North Carolina reports compliance costs of 7%-8% and smaller schools spend around 7% as well. Higher education institutions have around 265 regulations to follow which are difficult to stay current with.
Federal Cost Accounting and Effort Reporting
Colleges and universities report a host of problems with federal cost accounting and effort reporting including paying employees based on budget rather than time spent, basing position description on the funding source, understanding cost objectives, not recording actual times, exhausting funds or executing certifications prematurely, and incorrectly charging time to federal awards.
Construction and Deferred Maintenance
The U.S. enjoyed a construction boom during the 1960s and 1970s and age is now taking a toll on those facilities. Cracked masonry, corroded pipes, and leaky roofs are expensive and necessary to maintain. Many building systems are completely outdated and not worth fixing. Facility maintenance isn’t one of the more popular line items in the budget despite the fact that it can create serious liabilities for higher education. Deferred maintenance at higher education facilities was over $1 trillion in 2015 which is over $100 per facility square foot.
Transparency, Ethical Conduct, and Behavior
A code of conduct serves as a guide for expected employee behavior. Unfortunately, college and university boards can’t necessarily count on professors and professionals following it. Moral standards exist in higher education, but the standards aren’t always clear. Boards need to be clear with employees on the reputational risk their behavior poses and address conduct issues promptly as they arise.
Higher education board oversight encompasses a multitude of areas. The fact that issues keep changing and evolving makes the responsibility for oversight even more challenging. Proper board oversight requires being aware of the risks, prioritizing them, and establishing a plan to mitigate them. Data and analytics, along with analyzing how other higher education institutions are the best tools for establishing an effective risk management plan.