Ready for the fall? 10 potential policy pitfalls college leaders must address this summer

One litigation specialist says institutions should ensure procedures and strategies are updated before the fall.

In less than two months, a deluge of students, faculty and staff will engulf campuses across the United States. Are higher education leaders ready for the blitz, with policies and procedures that are still relevant?

Kate Dion, who is a litigation partner at Robinson+Cole and chair of the education law industry group that helps advise higher ed clients, says colleges and universities should dust off items this summer that may need updating to ensure operations run smoothly this fall.

“Now is a really great time to reflect on what happened during the past year,” she says. “Use the opportunity to think about what went well, what could be done better, and what policies might have been implemented throughout the year that could be updated to better align with the university’s mission—initiatives like DEI and social justice. Connect that work with all the other policies on campus and make sure everything’s working together.”

The scope of key areas that need to be addressed can be daunting—from student supports to COVID guidance to study abroad and drug and alcohol policies. Even if campus leaders believe they’ve reviewed most everything, one item always must be checked. “Cybersecurity is one area where educational institutions are high targets, and insurance is expensive,” Dion says. “Staying updated tends to be a big struggle, and it affects bigger institutions and smaller institutions.”

University Business sat down with Dion to gain some insight into what institutions should be looking at in their procedures heading into the fall. Before enacting any new policies, they should be embraced by key stakeholders. “There’s no point to having a policy if no one’s going to follow it,” she says. “Make sure you can enforce them, especially when they’re not terribly popular … like masking policies.”

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Here are nine other areas colleges and universities should consider revising:

Incident response: “If there is an issue on campus, do you have the best system in place so that you can communicate with the greatest number of students? If you drafted a policy pre-COVID–and 95% of your students were residential before and now a lot fewer are, are you making sure that you’ve addressed those changes in your demographics?”

Dion says that because of the number of recent high-profile shootings, including the incident in Uvalde, colleges “should look at those [policies] and revise them or think about ways to tighten those up.”

Employee hiring: “There’s always things you can do in your in your hiring policies to do it with more sensitivity to DEI&J,” Dion says. “Most schools are not overtly discriminatory, but they may not realize that certain practices and procedures may have a disparate impact. A lot of schools have made an effort the last several years to be very broad and expansive with their hiring practices, but those schools particularly with tenure may face greater challenges in achieving quicker and more impactful changes. So, there is an education piece for any employer to continually train and make sure everybody is aware of what expectations are around DEI&J, sexual discrimination policies and mental health.”

Title IX: Dion says, “Even the institutions that have the tightest policies are always going to get issues that the Title IX coordinator is going to be new to. There are a lot of intersecting rights of different people and risks for the institution on both sides. One thing I’ve been working with clients to think about is that when we saw the change of the regulations come out in 2021, schools weren’t sure how to approach those cases that had a complaint filed before the regulation date came into effect. Then policies changed, and nobody knew which policy they should be applying.”

Free speech and civil discourse: Dion advises colleges that want to be more open to inviting controversial speakers onto campus should plan for it, with messaging about maintaining civil discourse. Leaders should let stakeholders know there could be “polarizing topics and people could be hurt or emotionally affected. Let’s strategize how we prepare in advance. It doesn’t just end with a speaker but continues with a learning experience and a healing experience for some people afterward.”

COVID-19 procedures: With stressed staff and faculty enduring COVID the past two years in certain departments, Dion says colleges should “look at who’s staffing those COVID roles, and whether they are staffed enough. If you’re going to change your policies, do you need to change the staffing? Are those people overworked? Or if they’re sharing jobs, should it be shared with somebody else?”

Study abroad: Dion recommends assessing risk expectations in the post-COVID environment before truly opening up study abroad options. “Even before COVID, we had some instances coming out where schools could be held responsible if a student got injured. When COVID came out, a lot of work was done on the fly. A lot of policies and procedures in first evaluating a student study abroad choice pre-COVID, were, ‘look at the Homeland Security website or look at the CDC website. If they’re at a certain category, we’re not going to support students going to study abroad there.’ It’s a lot more difficult now to evaluate what kind of risk an institution faces when sending a student abroad. When I look at contracts for study abroad services, I’m thinking about who the risk is on, not just assuming that the provider will take care of mitigating all the risks.”

Drugs and alcohol: “As more states have allowed recreational marijuana, and those facilities get closer to campuses, colleges still need to prohibit the use of marijuana on campus. But we also have to look at how that affects ADA policies if a student or a faculty or staff member has a medical marijuana card. And if your student conduct policy [includes] behavior off-campus, make sure that’s being addressed in your policies and that students know that when they come on campus.”

Mental health: Dion says summer is a great time to analyze mental health programs and staffing levels. “If you’re sending a lot of people off campus to receive mental health treatment, is that being done effectively? Do you need to look for more referral sources? You want to make sure that pathway has as few roadblocks as possible. Also, auditing whether students know about the resources that are offered, and how they know about it.”

Faculty burnout: “How do you address the issues around working remotely and separately, considerations of equity among employees,” Dion says. “What goals are you trying to accomplish to ensure that faculty members feel comfortable on campus?”

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Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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