How to put the latest admissions scandal behind your school

Jack Quinn, former White House Counsel, is a partner at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips’ Washington Office. Suzanne Folsom is a Manatt partner and the former general counsel at United States Steel. Rob Garretson is a Manatt managing director and the former managing director of governance at United States Steel.

For the thousands of colleges and universities that were not ensnared by the Justice Department’s “Operation Varsity Blues” investigation, their collective sigh of relief could be premature. As the evidence disclosed to date makes clear, even a single dedicated fraudster can circumvent the rules and imperil the honest hard work done by a school’s administration, academic and admissions professionals.

To overcome this asymmetrical risk, a comprehensive response is required to protect the integrity of the higher education admissions process—and, equally important, its perception as fair by an institution’s key constituencies.

Indeed, public and private colleges and universities of all sizes have an abiding need to demonstrate to their stakeholders—current and prospective students and their parents, alumni, scholars and professors, grant-awarding organizations, legitimate athletes, and others—that theirs is a school where the admissions process is fair, blind to bribery and efforts to secure entry through the “back door,” and validated as above reproach by independent experts.

Proactive program

To that end, there is an opportunity for forward-leaning colleges and universities to adopt an Advanced Threat Analysis & Mitigation program to proactively demonstrate their commitment to the best ideals in higher education, and in so doing bolster their reputations and attract the students, faculty and the overall support they desire.

At the outset, implementing such a program requires the identification of an internal university leader outside of the admissions process (i.e., the general counsel, ethics officer, ombudsman or other senior official) to spearhead this effort, and a commitment to retain outside experts who are free of bias to ensure that their findings carry the necessary independence and impact.

Public and private colleges and universities have an abiding need to demonstrate to their stakeholders that theirs is a school where the admissions process is fair, blind to bribery and above reproach by independent experts.

Equally vital is the promise that the review will be allowed to proceed unencumbered and the results will be shared broadly with decision-makers and, importantly, the Board of Trustees.

The key elements of this four-part program include:

Evaluation. The first step is to build a team that will include seasoned regulatory and compliance professionals. Lawyers with a specialty in this discipline, augmented by proven compliance experts, know the right questions to ask – and how to evaluate the answers. Chief among the questions that should be asked are:

  • What are the existing admissions policies and procedures, and in 2019 are they appropriate, or is there a need to update them?
  • What are the guardrails that protect independence, and how do the existing standards compare to generally accepted practices?
  • How broadly circulated and known are these policies and procedures within the college or university? Are regular refresher courses part of the process? If so, who attends them, and is attendance mandatory?
  • Do loopholes or shortcuts exist within the admissions process, and if so, what are the vectors that enable these “workarounds”?
  • What will it take to remediate these weaknesses?

Process analysis. Similarly, it is critical to understand, at a granular level, the real-world functioning of the admissions process. The key questions that must be a part of this gap analysis include:

  • Specifically, how does the admissions process unfold—what’s the step-by-step lifecycle?
  • Who has influence over this process, what are the associated checks and balances, and are they adequate?
  • Can this system be circumvented, and if so, by whom?
  • How does the athletic recruiting process plug into admissions—are they aligned, with the appropriate level of transparency?
  • What about other areas of influence or special influence – from powerful alumni to major donors to consideration for minority candidates—that without proper oversight could be abused without setting off alarm bells? Are the right checks and balances in place for programs related to these areas of special consideration?
  • Are the processes that are in place representative of how the institution portrays itself publicly? In other words, do they live up to the promise of their brand?

Validation. For in-depth reviews to be effective, they have to be accompanied by in-person interviews. Conducted by veteran investigators with a history of experience in high-stakes and high-pressure situations, these interviews serve to pressure test the policies, procedures and processes that are in place—and search for deficiencies and workarounds that represent materials weaknesses that have the potential to inflict asymmetrical harm on the institution. The key points of analysis should include a focus on:

  • Are the internal controls part of the organization’s culture, and are they working as intended?
  • What are the concerns of the professionals who work in and around the admissions process (the owners of it), – and how would they harden the process against exploitation?
  • As a practical matter, how do those who recruit for the school (coaches, outside consultants and others) interact with those who have access to the senior levels of the admissions process?
  • What is the level for reporting financial transactions that could have a deleterious impact on the integrity of the process, and is there an effective audit trail in place?

Report and recommendations. Finally, the reviewing team should produce a detailed report on their findings with a focus on actionable initiatives and recommendations for continued vigilance (a re-certification, if you will).

Lengthy reports that deliver overly vague analysis and recite broad prohibitions will not deliver the needed support. In fact, platitudes will only engender greater concern about the veracity of the admissions process and, in the end, spark more questions than they answer.

Instead, specific recommendations—a suggested new organizational chart to ensure that the appropriate checks and balances are in place, for example—will simultaneously highlight areas for immediate improvement and make it that much more difficult for critics to claim that gaps were ignored or overlooked.

Read: College admissions scandal is more than a crisis of confidence

While every institution is unique, the extent to which these recommendations, or at least an Executive Summary of them, is released publicly will further demonstrate an irrevocable commitment to best practices.

Done well, and with a commitment to change as needed, implementation of an Advanced Threat Analysis & Mitigation program will pay immediate—and long-term dividends—and demonstrate that the institution has a valid and ethical core. Schools that strengthen their admissions process to wall off bad actors will be rewarded with favorable engagement by their key stakeholders and help to erase the question marks that conclude far too many of today’s conversations about the fairness of college and university admissions.

Jack Quinn, former White House Counsel, is a partner at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips’ Washington Office. Suzanne Folsom is a Manatt partner and the former general counsel at United States Steel. Rob Garretson is a Manatt managing director and the former managing director of governance at United States Steel.

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