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Higher education and the science of an effectively conducted investigation

As part of the Society of Corporate Compliance and Ethics’ (SCCE) Annual Higher Education Compliance Conference, which convenes college and university compliance professionals from across the country, Baker Tilly facilitated a panel discussion with compliance leaders from a large, public community college and a small, private, religiously affiliated university to share leading practices for conducting investigations.

The discussion focused on the following topics:

  • Standardizing investigation processes
  • Using key performance metrics and analytics to monitor trends
  • Incorporating leading practices for complex investigations

How can we create standardized investigation protocols across an institution?

  1. Complaints or concerns can originate from different sources across many areas of an institution. Enhance transparency by defining reporting practices and channels (e.g., compliance or ethics hotline) for key policy infractions, and use incident management software or other tracking mechanisms to centralize documentation and reports.
  2. Investigations can be conducted by the compliance function or by institutional-partner areas outside of compliance (e.g., a stakeholder with subject matter expertise). A documented policy, procedure or investigation “roadmap” should explicitly define who leads each type of investigation. Compliance can assist by monitoring the investigation’s progress and providing guidance, as needed, to ensure a consistent investigation approach.
  3. Tools and templates help to standardize investigation processes, regardless of which institutional area is reviewing the allegation or infraction. Disseminate standardized intake forms, procedural documents and templates for consistent communications, interviews and investigative reports.
  4. Even in a remote operating environment, reports will likely continue. Phone calls, video conferences and other virtual tools will be critical to the interpersonal aspects of investigations. Consider how investigation protocols may need to be adjusted when operating remotely. Communicate and implement these changes consistently and in a timely manner.

What data points and metrics can we use to monitor trends in reports?

Institutions can leverage data and other key metrics to enhance monitoring processes. Beyond just tracking the number of reports, institutions should consider the following metrics to proactively monitor compliance and ethical behavior:

  • Cycle times (e.g., intake to resolution, incident to report)
  • Trend analysis (e.g., by intake channel, reporting period, functional area, report type or category)
  • School, college, department and/or university-wide figures compared with industry averages
  • Anonymous versus identified reporter comparisons
  • Substantiation rates (e.g., allegations or infractions versus informational reports)
  • Dashboard reporting and tracking (e.g., monitoring investigation status and progress)

What leading practices can help to consistently navigate complex investigations?

  1. Consider a centralized incident management system that can track reports, store information and documentation, and monitor other aspects of the investigation process, which can be especially valuable as reports may come from a variety of sources and will likely require coordination with other institutional partners.
  2. Designate a single process owner and/or decision-maker for each type of investigation and ensure they have the necessary support resources to effectively conduct the investigation.
  3. Develop a communication plan that outlines notification procedures to keep key stakeholders (e.g., the reporter) apprised of the investigation’s progress, taking into account limitations to the specific information that can be shared.
  4. Revisit investigation protocols and policies periodically and maintain documentation to support that institutional policies, procedures and processes are/were followed, particularly for higher-risk investigations.
  5. Implement standardized investigation templates across institutional areas conducting investigations to enable consistent processes and decision-making.

With oversight from compliance, colleges and universities can use available protocols, data and templates to consistently and effectively navigate complex and dynamic investigations, regardless of which institutional area is taking the lead.

For more information, or to learn how Baker Tilly's higher education investigation specialists can help, contact our team.

Cassandra Walsh
Corey Parker
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