I was sitting in my office last week thumbing through the latest issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education – the diary of news in the academe – and it hit me that story after story touched on what my colleagues and I call “organizational integrity.” Universities should increasingly focus on their integrity – their values, their culture, their own sense of right and wrong – as the bedrock of their organizational decision-making, risk management, and compliance. And, when their reputations are threatened,  universities should try to ground their response in those same values.

I have been a student of higher education law and policy for my entire legal career. What started  out of a graduate assistantship in student affairs while a law student has grown into a part of my professional life. I have had handled a number of matters related to higher education in the course of my white collar defense and investigations practice. Most notably, I helped lead the team that conducted the independent investigation into academic misconduct and paper classes at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I saw first hand how a major national university, through its leaders, responded to a severe reputational threat by relying on its values and commitment to do the right thing. I witnessed how doing the right thing – while painful for the university in the short term – ultimately allowed the school to move past the scandal and restore its reputation.

Along with several of my partners, I am a co-founder of our firm’s Organizational Integrity Group, a multidisciplinary team of attorneys who work to solve problems holistically through a lens of integrity and values-based responses. We take our experience representing public organizations and private corporations that are confronting problems to help other organizations identify potential risk, take action to mitigate that risk, and if a problem does arise, to respond in manner guided by the values and integrity.

The news of higher education is today replete with stories of scandal, crisis, and questions for the academe. The stories in just one issue of the Chronicle highlight this:

  • Why did one university accept money from Jeffrey Epstein, the now infamous alleged sex trafficker? How should universities decide whether to accept money from individuals or groups?
  • How can a university riddled by scandal reform its governance structure to more effectively respond to crisis? How can the university restore the public’s trust in its integrity in the wake of these scandals?
  • How does a university change its culture? How does it convince internal and external stakeholders that it is serious about the culture change?

Each of these stories reflect organizational integrity. For example, with regard to determining whether to accept money from an individual or group with a checkered pass, the question directly challenges the university’s values. Certainly fundraising and making financial resources available to faculty and students are paramount among the university’s goals. And, likewise, there are clearly organizations or individuals from whom the university would reject any donation, like,  .

How can a university riddled by scandal reform itself and re-earn its stakeholders’ trust? Again, it is a question of values. Long ago, Justice Brandeis quipped that “sunlight is said to be the best of the disinfectants,” suggesting that transparency can clean up a problem. But how does a university balance transparency against potential liability by releasing a report or owning a problem? A purely legal analysis would countenance that the university should avoid commenting on the subject or refuse to release a report. But that legal analysis does not, as my colleagues and I say, solve the whole problem. Instead, universities must balance competing interests – competing values – and respond in a way that reflects integrity. It is our experience that recognizing these competing factors and focusing on integrity ultimately leads to the right outcome for the whole problem.

In sum, universities should not be shy to recognize the complexity of the problems they face. Instead, they should willingly look to resolve these problems by emphasizing their institutional values and responding holistically in ways that reflect organizational integrity. By focusing on values and integrity, organizations can respond to the changing dynamics of higher education and the increased scrutiny universities encounter.