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A Field Guide Through the Legal Undergrowth

Colleges and universities must comply with more than 200 federal statutes, and it seems there’s no end in sight to the burgeoning regulations. Find help at the award-winning Compliance Partners Web site developed by the Catholic University of America.

By Margaret O’Donnell and Cathy Wood

*The stack of congressional regulations governing federal student grants and loans now “stands twice as tall as I do,” noted Sen. Lamar Alexander, in an October 2009 Newsweek article, “The Three-Year Solution.” And that represents only the foothills of the growing mountain of federal regulations and the thicket of complexities that govern higher education.

What's a college or university to do—particularly one that is smaller in size and resources—to make its way through the dense tangle of new regulations, shed light on the details that must be monitored and reported, and set up the necessary processes to remain in compliance?

To address this challenge, the Catholic University of America (CUA) has created a Web-based preventive law-compliance program, using existing university resources, and made it available to the entire higher education community. The initiative, known as Compliance Partners, is an outgrowth of earlier work centered on our university's own needs. The comprehensive site and its expanded reach earned Compliance Partners recognition as NACUBO's 2009 innovation Award recipient.

The program enhances employee productivity, improves service delivery of legal information, and—by facilitating legal compliance—reduces risk.

Following is the story of the development of the program, the ways in which other institutions can partner with and benefit from our university's work, and the elements that qualified the project to receive the NACUBO award.

Beginning to Tackle the Maze 

CUA's online compliance program had its start in 2002, when the Office of General Counsel developed the Campus Legal Information Clearinghouse (CLIC) Web site. At a time when no single source in the country provided complete information on compliance rules in higher education, the site's pages were meant to offer a comprehensive summary of federal higher education regulations. Separate pages for each law (1) provide information about the law; (2) explain the details of regulations; (3) include selected court decisions relevant to that law; and (4) assist users with compliance through materials collected from other institutions, law firms, government agencies, and nonprofit organizations.

This earlier project was done in collaboration with the American Council on Education. The idea behind including ACE was to assist in outreach to all colleges and universities. Together, we hoped to inspire other schools to contribute compliance materials to the clearinghouse and had some success with that, as is evident on the CLIC Web site.

Over the years, we have also enjoyed consistent and helpful publicity support and contributions of compliance materials from a number of other higher education groups, especially the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU), the National Association of College and University Attorneys (NACUA), EDUCAUSE, the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO), and NACUBO.

Adding an Oversight Component

Fertile Field for Innovation

The fact that the Catholic University of America (CUA), Washington, D.C., is a smaller school—with a total enrollment of 6,700 students—is one reason why creativity abounds, says Cathy Wood, vice president for finance and treasurer. “The staff is encouraged to multitask, and many at CUA wear more than one hat in terms of jobs. This encourages employees to think innovatively when it comes to accomplishing more with less.”

Motivation is also an important element, notes Wood. During the critical period of development of the Compliance Partners program, she notes, the Office of General Counsel consistently received strong encouragement and support from the president's office and from other senior managers.

What characteristics does NACUBO's Innovation Awards committee look for when evaluating award applications? Mary Jo Maydew, committee chair and vice president for finance and administration, Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley, Massachusetts, says: “This award is designed to recognize institutions that have found creative approaches to improving institutional processes or otherwise enhancing productivity. The committee looks for cutting-edge solutions and also for examples of early successes that have become models for the rest of higher education.”

The awards committee found the Compliance Partners project particularly compelling. Maydew explains: “When first developed a number of years ago, the project was a cutting-edge approach to the persistent and growing challenge of responding to the demands of regulatory compliance. Although it is no longer new, the initiative continues to be exemplary as a model and an invaluable source of information for other institutions' compliance efforts.”

The Compliance Partners program was a logical outgrowth of the Campus Legal Information Clearinghouse Web pages. Several years ago we started the beta pages for the site, which remained under development for a few more years before going live. The goal was to ensure that everyone at the university who had a clear regulatory duty would take ownership for that obligation and have the necessary resources to effectively fulfill it. Each employee responsible for compliance with some aspect of a federal law now has a page unique to his or her position. That page identifies all of the particular employee's compliance responsibilities (with material drawn from the CLIC pages) under any federal law or regulation assigned to that position. Employees are encouraged to “own” their pages. Each page includes links to the CLIC page applicable to that law as well as to other resources that will help the employee with his or her compliance responsibilities. Information is presented in terms useful for nonlawyer managers.

Comprehensive connections. Links go in the other direction as well. Anyone who uses the CLIC site to look up a particular federal law or regulation will easily find clearly labeled Compliance Partners links to every person on campus who has specific compliance responsibility under that law. For example, looking up the CLIC page on the Campus Security Act, you'll find links to six different compliance partners on campus with responsibility for some area of compliance with the act. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, there are links to five different compliance partners for the ADA.

One other Web site that relates to the Compliance Partners program is the university's policy page. Among other things, each policy identifies a “responsible official” who is tasked with maintaining that policy. Policies related to federal law link back to the related CLIC page and will also link to the Compliance Partners page for that official. Similarly, the page for each compliance partner links to any policies for which that person is the responsible official.

Others support the mission. Catholic University's Center for Planning and Information Technology was an effective and critical partner, providing the Web know-how and other technical support to accomplish the site expansion. While some additional expenditures were made in the beginning, there are no ongoing expenses other than staff time. For creation of the policies site, the Office of General Counsel was fortunate to have a super student worker with the right skills. At one brief point the office was assisted by an accomplished webmaster who was also a law student at the time.

Other key people involved in the project development were managers with the heaviest regulatory burdens in their areas—from the offices of dean of students, controller, registrar, environmental safety, research, and human resources, for instance.

In the first phase of our program we experienced substantially reduced complaints in internal university proceedings and in external courts and government agencies.

To develop the Compliance Partners content meant literally going from A to Z in the FEDLAW list (our summaries of all federal laws related to higher education) and creating individual content pages that would be available for the employees who “owned” those tasks. While the complex process could have lagged, the incentive to complete the Compliance Partners page came from the CUA general counsel's gentle reminder that it would be great to have the pages completed by summer 2009. The general counsel put such weight on project completion that he took the position that it was acceptable to take time out from day-to-day issues to work on preventive law issues.

In almost every case, as pages were developed, the Office of General Counsel worked with individual staff members to ensure they knew the latest legal developments in their respective areas. Any major changes in compliance responsibilities triggered an e-mail to the staffer who was affected by the change.

The overall project, once completed, was announced by e-mail to affected faculty and staff throughout campus. Employees were generally enthusiastic about having more resources to assist them in legal compliance; and they knew, too, that the Office of General Counsel was always available to them should they need help. The way in which each person's work is evaluated relative to his or her role in compliance is left up to individual supervisors.

Outcomes, Impact, and Innovation

The Catholic University of America brought to this project an existing culture of compliance, and our president, Father David M. O'Connell, has been very supportive of efforts by the general counsel's office to use the institution's Web site as a tool for identifying laws, policies, and resources that help affect compliance. 

The original goal was to raise campus awareness and encourage continued education about the law. To that end, the university is now operating in preventive law mode—a good indicator of progress. We've also realized the benefit to the legal staff from regular and extensive contact with nonlawyer experts in their particular disciplines, such as immigration, campus security, and research administration.

Take a Bow for Best Ideas

What strikes you as a particularly stellar system, process, or use of resources on your campus? Tell us about it and see if we agree by recognizing the effort with NACUBO's 2010 Innovation Award.

This award for institutional effort seeks to honor the achievements of colleges and universities in the areas of process improvement or resource enhancement. We'll select recipients from a nationwide pool of institutions and recognize them within each of NACUBO's primary membership segments (research universities, comprehensive and doctoral institutions, small institutions, and community colleges).

These, along with NACUBO's six individual awards (for details, refer to NACUBO News on page 50 of the March 2010 Business Officer), will be presented at the 2010 NACUBO Annual Meeting in San Francisco.

(The deadline for submitting nomination forms was April 16.)

Signs of progress. While no easy formula can measure the effectiveness of compliance programs, in the first phase of our program we experienced substantially reduced complaints in internal university proceedings and in external courts and government agencies. We've reduced negative experiences with external compliance audits and inspections. We've also improved our incidents of insurance claims, which substantially reduced our insurance premiums compared with peer institutions. That is in large part because Compliance Partners has made supervisors more aware of the importance of compliance as an element of evaluating employee performance. It has also sharpened the focus of internal audits and improved our ability to work with external auditors and risk management consultants.

Bringing others in. Various communication efforts continue to spread the word about the site and its accessibility. Starting in 1999, we used a NACUA listserver to let our colleague institutions know about the first CLIC page. We've continued to make significant updates to our colleagues in this manner. Also, ACE and CUA representatives have informed others about Compliance Partners through presentations at NACUA panels and other higher education conferences. Similarly, many higher education groups have made their members aware of the Web site. The Chronicle of Higher Education and other media have reported on the site, and the U.S. Department of Education used us as a resource in a recent study of higher education and now links to Compliance Partners.

Other schools have contributed training materials. Participating institutions with compliance materials presently appearing on or linked from the CLIC site include Washington and Lee University, Lexington, Virginia; the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; the University of Rochester, Rochester, New York; the University of Texas System; Ohio State University, Columbus; and the University of Idaho, Moscow.

No backsliding. These concerted efforts have produced a compliance program designed to allow colleges and universities to achieve effective compliance with something less than a separate compliance office. We are confident that Compliance Partners can keep up with changes to the regulations. In some ways it has become easier to provide staff and faculty with electronic assistance, as more associations, law firms, and universities now provide electronic resources on legal compliance and the Office of General Counsel can link to those resources. Feedback from our staff compliance partners and our other stakeholders will drive future revisions.

In the end, regulations protect important human values such as privacy, freedom, opportunity, and safety. We believe a culture of compliance is needed to preserve these core values underlying federal regulation—and hope that Compliance Partners will continue to be a strong facilitator of those efforts.

MARGARET O'DONNELL, is associate general counsel for policy and compliance and CATHY WOOD is vice president for finance and treasurer, the Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C.