From the Big Easy to the Big Ten, and beyond

What the process of reforming the New Orleans police department can teach colleges and universities
By: , and | March 14, 2019

Jonathan Aronie (top), David Douglass, Joseph Jay.

In 2012, the Penn State Lions went 8-4 on the field, passing 3,283 yards, rushing 740 yards, and scoring 349 points. This credible performance earned it a respectable 38th ranking out of the 124 schools in the NCAA’s Division I Football Bowl Subdivision. But few will remember Penn State’s athletic performance in 2012. What people will remember instead is that 2012 was the year the University’s Special Investigative Counsel issued its report into the actions of Penn State Coach Gerald Sandusky.
This experience is not unique to Penn State. Earlier this year, Brandeis University, a small private research institution in Massachusetts, published its Independent Counsel’s report following a review of alleged abuses by its Athletics Department.
While Penn State and Brandeis University are quite different institutions athletically (indeed, Brandeis disbanded its football team in 1960), their interest in and need to implement broad-based organizational reforms are the same. Implementing meaningful, lasting organizational reform, however, is no easy task. The Internet is littered with stories of institutions heading down the road to reform only to have their path blocked by one obstacle or another.

Implementing reform

Over our 75 collective years helping institutions change the way they are viewed by others–and, frankly, the way they view themselves–we have learned a lot about how to implement and sustain organizational reform. We have drawn these lessons from our experiences leading or co-leading a number of high profile investigations, including our role as the Federal Monitor over the 492-paragraph New Orleans Police Department Consent Decree.
Among the many lessons we have taken away from our time in New Orleans (and our similar experience elsewhere) is that the drivers of, and inhibitors to, organizational reform are surprisingly constant regardless of organization type and setting. Sure, some of the hurdles are unique to a given culture, but, fundamentally, organizational reform is organizational reform.
Against this background, we offer the following tips to institutions of higher education that find themselves in need of change. They are useful for any organization interested in self-improvement, whether the reform effort is compelled by a directive from an enforcement authority, “suggested” by the results of an internal investigation, or a purely voluntary act of self-improvement.

Tip 1: Care about the reform as much as the perception of reform. There is an old saying in Hollywood that “it’s all about honesty, and once you learn to fake that, you’ve got it made.” While the advice is amusing, it is horrible advice for anyone actually interested in meaningful reform. Thus, as our Tip Number 1, we say this: Fess up to your problems, commit to fixing them, and actually care about the outcome.

Tip 2: Change who is on the bus. In his book Good To Great, Jim Collins explains how great companies invest time and energy getting the “right people on the bus.” The potential beneficiaries of this principle are not limited to corporations, and the benefits are not limited to profitability and corporate longevity. Ensuring the right people are on the bus can help any organization institutionalize cultural and procedural reforms.

Tip 3: Listen. It constantly surprises us how large organizations often ignore the voices of those toiling in their own trenches. But those voices should not be ignored. An organization’s own personnel often are the best source of information regarding problems and solutions. Further, actually involving those personnel in implementing the solutions will help develop buy-in and long-term support.

Tip 4: Establish institutions that are difficult to dismantle. As Newton famously observed, objects in motion tend to stay in motion. Our experience in the public and private sectors has taught us this law applies in the Dean’s Suite just as in the physics classroom. Like the rest of us, leaders do not like creating extra work for themselves. This trait can be used to help institutionalize cultural and procedural reforms.

Tip 5: Establish institutions that the organization’s personnel do not want to dismantle. An organization’s personnel, whether police officers, corporate executives, or athletics coaches, have no interest in dismantling reforms that have made their jobs safer, their work easier, or their reputation stronger. Consequently, reforms that make life better for the intended beneficiaries and those charged with implementing them will have greater longevity.

Tip 6: Promote reform initiatives and successes (and challenges) publicly. When an organization starts along the path of implementing change, it should be as open about its plans as possible. It likewise should be open and transparent as the reform initiative progresses. Such openness not only gives the organization well-deserved credit for its goals, it makes it harder to back away from those goals as time goes on.

Tip 7: Formalize reform initiatives into policy. Whether an organization is implementing reforms due to an enforcement proceeding, as the result of pressure from the public, or voluntarily, at the end of the day, reform initiatives are only as good as the reform-minded leaders in place to enforce them. A change in leadership can bring about a change in organizational direction. “Codifying” reforms, however, can help ensure their success. Such formalization does not guarantee reforms will be sustained over time, but it will make it less likely they fall prey to the ever-shifting political imperatives of new leadership.

Tip 8: Implement meaningful measurement techniques, including audits and evaluations. Peter Drucker, the famed business management consultant, is credited with having said, “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” The concept is a critical one for sustaining organizational reforms over time. A university’s ethics and compliance program, for example, is far more likely to have legs if the university has the means regularly to audit and measure its effectiveness.

Tip 9: Find a credible independent source to stand behind your reforms. Over the years, we have seen far too many organizations undertake reform efforts and then, on their own, attempt to convince the public (whether that public be citizens, students and faculty, or shareholders and customers) that all now is well.

Not surprisingly, most of us are not easily convinced when the institution alleged to have been deceptive in the first place stands up and says “trust me.” The simple, albeit not entirely painless, solution to this problem is to engage a credible, independent source to kick the tires, look in the closets, and, at the right time, attest to and stand behind the impact of the reforms.

Tip 10: Undertake the Reform Initiative Before Being Told To Do So. More often than not it is the Government (or plaintiffs) who force reform upon an institution rather than the institution embracing reform from within. Self-initiated reform, however, gives the initiator greater credibility. Indeed, in some cases, when the reforms are meaningful and transparent enough, self-initiation even can avoid the involvement of outside parties (think state or federal prosecutors).

Universities–like corporations and governments–make mistakes, some understandable, some inexplicable. As long as humans are fallible, there will be organizations in need of reform. And as long as there are organizations in need of reform, there will be a need to sustain those reforms. The strategies discussed above offer a possible roadmap to sustainment.

Jonathan Aronie ([email protected]), David Douglass ([email protected]), and Joseph Jay ([email protected]) are partners in the Washington, D.C. office of Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton.