The University of Michigan plans to reorganize its ethics and compliance function as an office more independent from the legal department, after a string of misconduct scandals and the arrival of a new university president eager to chart a new course for the school’s 30,000 employees and 63,000 students.
University president Santa Ono unveiled his proposal last week at a board of regents meeting in Flint, Mich. Ono himself has been on the job only one week, succeeding a predecessor fired in January for having an inappropriate relationship with a subordinate — and that scandal is not to be confused with other misconduct scandals involving Michigan’s former provost, former athletic director, and at least one former professor.
So clearly Ono had plenty of reason to start his tenure with an ethics and compliance reboot. The question is whether that reboot will work.
According to a statement from the university, the new ethics and compliance function will “examine trends, processes, areas of concern, and overall ethics, integrity and compliance issues” across University of Michigan’s three campuses and its medical school.
“I’ve heard the concerns about how we address compliance and prevent issues of misconduct on campus,” Ono said during his first Board of Regents meeting. “I see this new office as an opportunity to widen our focus on an institutional basis. I want it to support the many efforts already underway and the staff who do this important work every day.”
The new office will not, however, have investigatory powers; nor will it hear case appeals or review decisions by the university’s Equity, Civil Rights and Title IX Office.
The new office will also have a dual reporting structure to both the university president and the general counsel, with regular reports to the board of regents. For a complaint against the president or a member of the president’s office staff, the compliance office will report to both the regents and to the general counsel directly.
Well, I’m not thrilled that the compliance office won’t be able to conduct its own investigations, since that’s crucial for any truly independent compliance function. Still, it’s a step in the right direction, which is better than nothing.
Ono told the board of regents that a detailed plan outlining the office’s structure will be developed with input from the campus community, and be presented to the regents later this school year. Presumably the university will then recruit someone to lead the office as chief compliance officer, although that step still sounds like it’s many months away.
If all this sounds familiar, that’s probably because Michigan State University went through its own ethics and compliance reorg four years ago — but to be clear, the University of Michigan and Michigan State are separate schools. Michigan State was the one mixed up with infamous pervert and serial sexual assaulter Larry Nassar. The University of Michigan’s problems are an entirely different set of misconduct allegations, which makes for an even more lamentable statement about higher education these days.