Higher Education Report

Higher Education Report

The Assault on Sexual Assault Continues – On Both the Federal and State Levels

Posted in Discrimination, Students, Title IX

university archAs reported last week, The White House Task Force To Protect Students From Sexual Assault issued its first report.  Simultaneously, OCR issued Q&As on Title IX obligations and related documents to help guide institutions and to reinforce the government’s interest in pushing colleges and universities to better respond to campus sexual assaults.  The effort to protect students on college and university campuses from sexual assaults is unquestionably a good thing, although one might question some of the government’s tactics. 

Towards the end of last week, the Department of Education turned the heat up on institutions.  On May 1, DOE made public a list of 55 higher education institutions currently the subject of OCR Title IX investigations, both complaint and compliance driven.  Bear in mind that these are simply situations in which a complaint has been filed, whether warranted or not, or the institution is the subject of a compliance review.  While the DOE’s press release stated that an “appearance on this list and being the subject of a Title IX investigation in no way indicates at this stage that the college or university is violating or has violated the law,” it seems that this latest tactic is intended as the equivalent of a “perp walk” designed to put pressure on institutions by making them look bad, although they have not been found in violation of the law in any way.  Although OCR noted that the list will be updated regularly, thus sending a message well beyond the 55 institutions named, it is notable that OCR did not indicate any intention to publicize, in a similar manner, those institutions cleared of any allegations of misconduct.  Continue Reading

Report of the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault

Posted in Discrimination, Sexual Assault, Students, Title IX

university building5Today the White House issued the “first” report from its task force on sexual assault.  The Report provides a number of recommendations for colleges and universities and is a “must read” for any administrator charged with any aspect of Title IX compliance.

Among the items addressed in the Report are the following:

  • Campus Climate Surveys.  The Report begins by noting that the first step in solving a problem is to identify it.  To assist institutions in identifying problems on their campuses, the Report provides a “toolkit” for conducting a Campus Climate Survey.  The Report suggests that an institution that is “serious” about addressing the problem of sexual assaults will voluntarily conduct a survey.  It also indicates that the government will be exploring legislative or administrative options to require schools to conduct a survey in 2016.
  • Engaging Men.  The Report presses institutions to engage men as “allies” in the cause to combat campus sexual assaults, noting: “Most men are not perpetrators – and when we empower men to step in when someone’s in trouble, they become an important part of the solution.”  Towards this end, the Report offers information on “Bystander-Focused Prevention of Sexual Violence.”
  • Effectively Responding.  A major component of the Report is its emphasis on institutions’ need to effectively respond to complaints of sexual assault by students.  The Report discusses a host of issues related to policy language and investigation and hearing procedures.  (The Report is detailed in this regard and contains far more than can be covered in a single blog post.  Future posts will explore specific topics in more detail.) 

One of the most intriguing aspects of the Report is its encouragement for institutions to have a confidential resource with whom victims can talk and from whom they can receive advice and support that does not require the commencement of an investigation, if the victim is not ready to take that step.   Until this point, the issue of confidential campus resources (meaning whether such confidential resources are permissible and, if so, who could be designated as a confidential resource) has been a subject of much speculation and confusion.  According to the Report, institutions should “make it clear up front, who on campus can maintain a victim’s confidence and who can’t – so a victim can make an informed decision about where best to turn.”  The Report provides institutions with sample language for a confidentiality protocol. Interestingly, this sample language indicates that institutions are permitted to have “confidential” advocates (including non-professionals) who, if contacted, would keep the Title IX Coordinator informed of the general extent and nature of the incident, but would provide no personally identifying information to the institution and would not trigger an investigation.  These individuals are distinguished from “responsible employees” who have a different reporting role and whose receipt of a report will generally trigger an investigation.  Issued with the Report is an extensive “Q&A” from OCR, which provides more detail as a follow up to its April 4, 2011 “Dear Colleague Letter” and also addresses this use of confidential advocates among many other issues).

The Report also includes a Checklist for Campus Sexual Misconduct Policies to assist institutions in drafting and/or reevaluating their own misconduct policies.  

  • Transparency.  The Report affirms the government’s commitment to making enforcement efforts more transparent.  Towards that end, it has created a new website, NotAlone.gov to “give students a roadmap for filing a complaint if they think their school has not lived up to its obligations.”  It also notes that OCR is strengthening its enforcement procedures by instituting time limits on negotiating voluntary resolution agreements, making it clear that institutions should provide victims with interim relief (such as housing or schedule changes), that OCR should make itself more visible on campus during investigations, and that OCR should improve its coordinating efforts with the Department of Justice.

The above merely touches upon the highlights of the Report.  Over the coming weeks, we will provide more information about the details of the Report and its accompanying documents.  For now, one thing seems clear: the federal government is signaling an even greater enforcement effort with respect to sexual assault on campus.  All colleges and universities should take this opportunity to review their current policies and procedures, in light of the Report and its recommendations, as the Report is clearly the government’s new roadmap.

NLRB Grants Request for Review of Northwestern University Decision

Posted in National Labor Relations Board, Unionization

In a not surprising development, the National Labor Relations Board announced today that it has granted Northwestern University’s Request for Review of the Regional Director’s decision directing an election among the University’s grant-in-aid scholarship football players, citing the existence of “substantial issues warranting review.”  The NLRB will later issue a briefing schedule, which will invite amicus briefs from other interested parties.

While the election among the University’s eligible student-athletes will still take place tomorrow, April 25, 2014, as scheduled, the ballots will be impounded, instead of counted, until after the NLRB issues its final decision.

A More “Militant” AAUP Coming to a Campus Near You?

Posted in Faculty, Labor, Unionization

university_PH03332IThe Chronicle has reported in the recent past about a division of views within the AAUP as to its proper focus.  In 2012, a slate of officers running under the “AAUP Organizing for Change” banner won election fairly handily (although only about 10% of the AAUP’s membership actually voted).  At the time of that election, a former AAUP Staff member described the election outcome as affecting “to a large extent, whether the association remains anchored principally to its commitment to the profession and its standards and principles or becomes an organization principally focused on a particular means—unionization—of achieving these objectives.”

This past February a slate of challengers, seeking to return AAUP to its traditional focus instead of a unionization focus, looked to unseat the “Organizing for Change” leadership.  At that time, The Chronicle reported on an interview given by Rudy H. Fichtenbaum, the “Organizing for Change” candidate  running for re-election as the AAUP’s president, in which he was said to have described “the real choice before the AAUP membership [as] whether the association would continue to build a national network of activist chapters or retreat into being a group focused on running a Washington office that weighs in on few controversies each year.”  Mr. Fichtenbaum was quoted as saying, “Our emphasis has totally been on organizing people.” Continue Reading

Michigan’s Affirmative Action Ban In Public Education Upheld By the Supreme Court

Posted in Affirmative Action

courthouse_24289004In a number of cases since Regents of the Univ. of Cal. v. Bakke, the Supreme Court has upheld in a variety of contexts the use of some degree of race based preferences in the admissions process for colleges and universities.  Although not its most recent decisions in this area, two of its most discussed decisions came out of Michigan.  In one, Gratz v. Bollinger the Supreme Court in 2003 found that the undergraduate admissions process at the University of Michigan violated the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution by its use of race based preferences.  At the same time, it also held, in Grutter v. Bollinger, that the University of Michigan Law School’s use of race based preferences was permissible.

Following these decisions, Michigan voters adopted Proposal 2, which became Article I, Section 26 of the State Constitution.  As relevant, it provides:

The University of Michigan, Michigan State University, Wayne State University, and any other public college or university, community college, or school district shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting. (Emphasis added.)

 This Proposal was challenged in two cases.  The District Court initially found that it was permissible for the voters of Michigan to adopt this constitutional amendment.  The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, in an original 2-1 decision and a subsequent 8-7 en banc decision, held that the Proposal was unconstitutional.  Continue Reading

Potential Institutional Liability to the Accused in Sexual Assault Cases

Posted in Sexual Assault

university buildingRecent articles and postings not only highlight the continuing focus on sexual assault cases on college campuses by the victims of those assaults, but also on the threat of litigation by those accused of the assaults.  In the past two years, at least half a dozen actions have been brought against institutions by those accused, generally alleging various issues with the handling of their cases.  A recent decision by a federal court in Ohio, in Wells v. Xavier University, illustrates institutions’ potential liability to the accused.

In this case, a student athlete at Xavier was accused, falsely he claimed, by another student of a sexual assault.  The University’s Conduct Board found the student responsible for a “serious violation” of the Code of Student Conduct.  At some point, the University apparently issued a statement, naming the student, and indicating that he was “found….responsible for a serious violation of the Code of Student Conduct” and that he was expelled from the University. Continue Reading

The NLRB, Northwestern University and Unintended Consequences

Posted in Higher Education, National Labor Relations Board

As reported here last week, the NLRB’s Regional Director in Chicago has determined that those members of the Northwestern University football team who receive grants-in-aid are “employees” under the National Labor Relations Act.  Even aside from the questionable basis for this conclusion, the Regional Director’s decision begs the question what are the possible unintended consequences of this decision?  And there are quite a few, only some of which are mentioned below.

Perhaps the first unintended consequence is whether the Board’s determination, if upheld, will actually render these student athletes ineligible to play intercollegiate football.  Under NCAA By-law 12.1.2, only amateurs are eligible for competition under NCAA rules.  Therefore,  student-athletes may not use their athletic skill for pay in any form in the sport in which they compete.  If a student-athlete is receiving compensation for their services, as determined by the Regional Director, is that student-athlete now receiving “pay in any form in [their] sport” and as a result no longer an amateur able to compete?  The irony of course is if that ends up being the NCAA’s interpretation of its by-law, that would of course defeat the very purpose behind unionizing in the first place.  Moreover, this possibility is not dependent upon the student-athletes actually unionizing but rather on the mere fact that they are now “paid” for playing.  It would seem that if bargaining actually resulted and any additional benefits were provided to these student-athletes, the likelihood of a loss of amateur status would be even greater.

For any other “employee” being “compensated” for their services, income tax is required to be paid on that compensation.  While the test for an employee under the National Labor Relations Act may not be identical to the test used by the IRS, how far behind can taxation be?  Using the numbers reported in the Regional Director’s decision for the value of the players’ grants-in-aid (as much as $76,000 per year at Northwestern), where is a player, or his family, going to come up with the cash to cover this tax bill? Continue Reading

NLRB Regional Director Finds College Football Players Qualify as Employees and Can Unionize

Posted in Higher Education, National Labor Relations Board
Image courtesy of arkorn / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of arkorn / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

In a stunning and potential landmark decision, a Regional Director of the National Labor Relations Board has found that football players receiving grant-in-aid scholarships from Northwestern University (the University) are “employees” under the National Labor Relations Act.  In his decision released Wednesday afternoon, the Regional Director determined that “players receiving scholarships to perform football-related services for [the University] under a contract for hire in return for compensation are subject to [the University]’s control and are therefore employees within the meaning of the Act.”  Accordingly, the Regional Director ordered that an election be conducted among all football players receiving grant-in-aid scholarships who have not exhausted their playing eligibility for the University.

In support of his decision, the Regional Director found that the players receive compensation for the athletic services they perform in the form of scholarships, which pay for the players’ tuition, fees, room, board, and books and can total as much as $76,000 per calendar year for up to five years.  Furthermore, the Regional Director found that the players are under the strict control of the University throughout the year.  The coaches determine the location, duration, and manner in which the players carry out their football-related activities; they monitor the players’ adherence to NCAA and team rules; and they control “nearly every aspect of the players’ private lives,” including their living arrangements, applications for outside employment, off-campus travel, social media posts, and communications with the media.  In contrast, the Regional Director held that “walk-ons do not meet the definition of ‘employee’ for the fundamental reason that they do not receive compensation for the athletic services that they perform.”

The University has confirmed that it plans to appeal the decision to the full National Labor Relations Board in Washington, D.C.   If upheld, the decision has the potential to dramatically alter the world of big-time athletics in higher education as it would open the door for scholarship
athletes at all private universities to unionize.  Indeed, the decision could have implications for scholarship students in a number of areas beyond athletics.

The Union, College Athletes Players Association (CAPA), which has the financial backing of the United Steelworkers, is seeking, among other demands, financial coverage for former players with sports-related medical expenses and the creation of an educational trust fund to help former players graduate.

Recent Background Check Lawsuit is Reminder of the Importance of Strictly Following the Fair Credit Reporting Act Disclosure Requirements

Posted in Background Checks

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Many institutions of higher education, like employers in many industries, use background checks as an integral part of their hiring process.  A recently filed class action lawsuit serves as a reminder to institutions of the importance of strict compliance with the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA).

The FCRA limits the purposes for which a background check (including a credit check or criminal background check) can be obtained.  One of the permissible purposes is for employment, including hiring decisions.  However, the Act imposes strict requirements in order to lawfully obtain and use a report.  One of those requirements is that the employer must provide applicants with a stand-alone disclosure and authorization form prior to obtaining a background check.  15 U.S.C. § 1681b(b)(2)(A).  This form must be separate from the employment application, and cannot include any type of language attempting to release the institution from liability associated with obtaining the background check.  Unfortunately, many institutions still fail to comply with this law by relying solely on a disclosure located on employment application to inform applicants that they will be subject to a background check, or by attempting to include additional language on the disclosure.

This particular requirement is the focus of a recent class action lawsuit filed against Whole Foods Market California.  Whole Foods is accused of using a legally invalid form to obtain consent to conduct backgrounds checks during their employment application process.  In this case, it is alleged that the employer relied on a background check consent that was included alongside several other consent paragraphs on an online employment application.  Additionally, that consent included a release of claims related to obtaining the background check.  If the employer is found to have used an invalid form the consequences are significant, including invalidation of the consent, statutory damages in the amount of up to $1,000 for each applicant, costs and attorneys’ fees and, potentially, punitive damages.

This lawsuit is a reminder that FCRA compliance makes good business sense, and that institutions should periodically review their application and hiring forms and processes to ensure strict compliance.

The National Labor Relations Board and Higher Education: More change on the Horizon?

Posted in Faculty, Unionization

After what seemed like a small lull in NLRB activity impacting Higher Education, the National Labor Relations Board has once again signaled potentially significant alterations to the legal landscape.

Just last week, the NLRB issued an “invitation” to file briefs in a case involving Pacific Lutheran University.  This specific case involves the interplay between organizing rights (in this instance for adjunct faculty) under Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act and the Religious Clause of the First Amendment, which in 1979 the Supreme Court held in NLRB v. Catholic Bishop of Chicago precludes the NLRB from becoming entangled in religious issues (in that case the Court held that the NLRB could not require a union election among lay teachers at a Catholic school).

This “invitation” asks interested parties to address the appropriate test that the Board should apply under Catholic Bishop and to identify factors it should consider in determining the appropriate standard for asserting jurisdiction.

But the invitation goes much further than this question which is only of significance to religiously affiliated institutions.  The underlying Pacific Lutheran University case also includes a claim that the University’s adjunct faculty are managerial under NLRB v. Yeshiva University because, among other things, there are adjuncts who are voting members of the University’s Faculty Assembly, along with their tenured and tenure track faculty.  The invitation, therefore, also requests interested parties to identify those factors that the Board should consider most significant in making a managerial determination, as well as what evidence should be required to establish that faculty “effectively control” decisions.  In particular, the Board has solicited information on whether there have been “developments in models of decision making in private universities since the issuance of Yeshiva that are relevant to the factors the Board should consider in making a determination of faculty managerial status?”

What is the significance of this invitation?  It likely signals some significant changes in the near future.  The fact is that unless the Board were inclined to consider some dramatic moves in these two areas, it would not have needed (or wanted) to solicit briefs on these issues.  Stay tuned – given the recent history of this Board, significant change is almost certainly on the horizon.