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IMA Human Resources Blog

Building and Managing Successful Compliance and Ethics Programs at Diverse Institutions

by Cassandra Walsh and Corey Parker

Baker Tilly Virchow Krause, LLP is an IMA Member

Higher education institutions of all sizes face a diverse array of regulations, many with steep penalties for non-compliance.  A successful compliance and ethics program can help institutions mitigate risk, facilitate a positive environment for employees and students alike and promote an institution’s values and integrity. However, colleges and universities encounter a number of challenges in building, managing and maintaining effective compliance and ethics programs.

At a Society of Corporate Compliance and Ethics (SCCE) event, Baker Tilly facilitated a panel of compliance and ethics officers representing three different institutions of varying sizes and structures came together to discuss their experiences. The panelists provided a brief background on their programs and shared both successes and challenges as they helped to build compliance programs for their institutions. Although each may be inherently different, the conversation about these three institutions highlighted a consistent approach with four notable considerations:

  • What factors should an institution consider when designing their compliance and ethics program?
  • What barriers or constraints could be avoided?
  • How can you gain support or buy-in during the compliance program implementation phase?
  • How does the institutional profile play a role in the compliance program development process?

Designing and building a compliance and ethics program

Before an institution can begin to contemplate a design for the foundation of a compliance and ethics program, each institution must understand how its dynamic environment and unique culture could impact on the overall program. Conversation among the panelists highlighted some significant considerations that helped them to proactively set the identity for their compliance programs:

  • What type of institution do you have: decentralized versus centralized?
  • Are the roles, responsibilities and reporting lines well-defined?
  • How will the compliance program leadership interact with the institution’s leadership team?
  • What relationship will general counsel, risk management, and others have?
  • What role will the Board or other committees have?
  • When will the compliance program leadership be involved in “doing” versus having an oversight role?
  • How can you keep compliance on the minds of your stakeholders?

Despite the acknowledgement that everyone will face different challenges both during the transition process AND in the future, one panelist further described her own office’s evolution as an “ongoing process.” Although the office itself was formally created several years ago, it has continued to critically evaluate its operations. As a result, the institution has recently added numerous compliance-related elements under the compliance and ethics umbrella. For example, the institution has added the following elements as a result of this evaluation process:

  • Internal Audit
  • Protection of Minors
  • Ethics Reporting
  • Institutional Code of Ethics
  • Title IX Compliance
  • Americans with Disabilities Act Compliance (ADA)

Implementing and maintaining a compliance and ethics program

Once an institution has carefully considered the factors that will shape the structure of the compliance and ethics program, you can begin to strategize an implementation plan. The implementation process may follow a similar path at each institution, but the overall timeline may vary depending on the institution’s environment (e.g., public versus private) and available resources (e.g., people, funding). Allowing adequate time for your institution to appropriately develop, mature and improve will contribute to the overall effectiveness of your program.

Although each panelist offered valuable insight into successes and challenges during their own implementation efforts, the panel agreed that critical components to the implementation of any compliance and ethics program may transition through some, if not all, of the following stages:

  • Commit – Understand your resources and constraints
  • Assess – Identify partners/champions, determine risk factors and understand potential gaps
  • Define – Roles, responsibilities, policies and controls
  • Implement – Roles, responsibilities, policies and controls
  • Communicate and Train – Awareness and compliance program elements
  • Measure, Monitor and Improve – Assess progress, identify and monitor key performance metrics
  • Report – Communicate to the appropriate stakeholders (e.g., university leaders, executive compliance committee, board of directors)

One panelist notably highlighted that this model will also require stakeholders to continuously monitor the newly created function closely to assess its development.  Institutions likely must reevaluate and reassess the process as the institution’s compliance and ethics program matures and transitions through each phase.

Overall theme

Overall, building and managing compliance and ethics programs can mean something very different at every institution; however, we all share in the challenging task of shaping a compliance and ethics program to be successful and effective. Due to the nature of the dynamic compliance landscape within higher education, continuous self-assessment, monitoring and adaptability will all be key factors in determining the success of your program.  Proactively identifying opportunities and adapting to these challenges will be instrumental to your success.


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