Live from Austin, Texas – The Education Compliance Officer Roundtable

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Here at the Higher Education Compliance Conference, we had the unique opportunity to hold a compliance officer round table discussion. This session provided a forum for Higher Education compliance officers to hash out the important issues facing their institutions currently. Throughout this 2 hour session, 3 main topics were discussed and debated: compliance committees, ADA compliance, and credentials for compliance officers. I’ll elaborate a bit below.

1. Compliance Committees.

Many of those participating are struggling to create and build effective compliance committees. They struggle with committee structure as well as how the committee fits into the compliance program as a whole. Several participants expressed their desire to build compliance committee that meaningfully contribute, rather than committee members just acting as micro-managers for the compliance officer. Several warned their fellow compliance officers to be wary of committees that exist on paper, but haven’t held a meeting or done anything in years.

Another pain point was committee members expressing frustration with the frequency of meetings, and becoming jaded, thinking all committee meetings are a waste of time. A participant helpfully suggested that if standing committees aren’t working, to adjust the structure. Building on-call working committees–just reach out to the individuals related to the issues at hand.

2. ADA and Accessible Technology.

A major point of discussion was the struggles compliance departments are facing when trying to implement ADA and accessible technology policies. Several compliance officers admitted that they often have faculty pushing-back against the ADA rules, including refusing to make accommodations.

It seems that compliance departments and ADA committees on campuses country-wide are seeing a trend toward faculty non-compliance. Apparently the most common faculty complaints are lack of time and budget to implement the ADA policies. Again, the group was ripe with helpful suggestions to overcome this issue, including getting buy in from the top administration, rolling out programs slowly (not pushing too hard too fast), and smartly explaining the consequences of non-compliance (including the possibility of losing federal assistance, grants, research dollars, and harm to reputation).

3. Credentials for Compliance Officers.

An informal poll in our breakout room showed an approximate 60/40 split toward compliance officers at universities holding law degrees. A particularly poignant questions was asked, “Are attorneys too risk-averse to be compliance officers?” While that issue wasn’t settled, it definitely gave everyone something to think about.

As it usually does, this discussion then evolved to include a lively debate about the intersection of the compliance department and general counsel. It’s likely that this debate may continue ad infinitum, but the room was able to settle on some key guidelines.

First among them was, regardless of role, acknowledge that there is a huge difference between the goals of compliance and general counsel. In academia, and elsewhere, however, success comes from building relationships. Whether a JD, PhD, or CPA, all can find a way to leverage their individual backgrounds to establish a commonality and work together to create a strong compliance culture.

A second guideline was that the office of the general counsel and the compliance department should have an equal reporting structure and equal power. Although the prevailing opinion is that general counsel is “the first among equals,” compliance officers are ready to claim their independence and be recognized as the professionals they are.