ERIC Identifier: ED427627
Publication Date: 1998-00-00
Author: Toma, J. Douglas - Palm, Richard L.
Washington Univ. Washington DC. Graduate School of Education and Human
Development., ERIC Clearinghouse on Higher Education Washington DC.
The Academic Administrator and the Law: What Every Dean and
Department Chair Needs To Know. ERIC Digest.
The deans and chairs who direct academic programs at universities, colleges,
and community colleges frequently must address issues that raise legal
questions. It is difficult to name a program or a service in higher education
that does not intersect with the law in some way. The academic administrator
must develop the skills needed to recognize the legal issues that invariably
shape the policies and decisions made in a school or department. And deans and
chairs must understand the resources available to assist them in resolving these
issues, particularly when to call for legal advice.
WHAT LEGAL ISSUES MIGHT ARISE FOR DEANS AND CHAIRS?
variety of legal issues are likely to arise in university and college schools
and departments. The most common ones involve contract and tort matters for
staff and students, constitutional or statutory due process and equal
protection, free expression, and external regulation in areas such as
immigration and copyrights. The sources of the law that govern these issues are
also numerous, ranging from the U.S. Constitution and the constitutions of the
states, to state and federal legislation and administrative rule making, to
judicial decisions made at all levels, to institutional rules and regulations,
to institutional custom and practice.
DOES THE LEGAL COMMUNITY DEFER TO ACADEMIC DECISION
Common across all types of legal issues, sources of law, and
institutions is a traditional legislative and judicial deference to academic
decision making. Though this traditional deference has eroded over time, it
remains pronounced across higher education. But despite the considerable
autonomy the law has customarily afforded higher education, it treats public and
private institutions differently, and it applies different rules to religious
and secular universities and colleges. In particular, public institutions are
subject to constitutional provisions.
WHAT ARE THE ROLES OF INSTITUTIONAL COUNSEL AND ACADEMIC DEANS AND CHAIRS?
Academic administrators must not only know what the law
is, but also understand the roles of counsel and the procedural contexts within
which lawyers work. Deans and chairs frequently work with attorneys, both those
retained by the institution and those hired in a personal capacity. These
lawyers perform a variety of functions, and they owe their loyalty to different
institutional clients at different times. One factor is relatively constant,
however: Information exchanged between counsel and client is privileged and
cannot be divulged.
Also of interest to academic administrators are the actual process of
litigation--from complaint and answer, to discovery and trial (or settlement),
to decision and remedy--and the issues of authority and delegation that
determine whether individuals or institutions will be held liable.
WHAT ISSUES DO ACADEMIC ADMINISTRATORS FACE DAILY?
essence of the relationship between employers and employees is the employment
contract, whether within the context of one-on-one bargaining between two
parties or as part of a broader collective bargaining agreement. Closely related
to employment contracts are decisions about hiring and promotion, each of which
raises issues of equal protection and due process, particularly given
constitutional provisions and statutory protections under the
anti-discrimination laws. Moreover, these same issues commonly arise in matters
of reappointment, tenure, promotion, and the dismissal and retirement of tenured
faculty and staff. Affirmative action frequently plays a role in the employment
Academic administrators must keep in mind several very practical concerns in
hiring and promoting faculty and staff: avoiding inappropriate questions during
the interview, respecting individual privacy rights, and following immigration
laws. Deans and chairs must also understand and respect faculty members' right
of academic freedom while still evaluating faculty performance, taking action
when it is insufficient, and investigating and perhaps punishing misconduct by
employees, such as sexual harassment.
Courts increasingly decide cases involving students using implied contract
theories, having moved from the traditional doctrine of in loco parentis.
Institutions are no longer necessarily assumed to have a parental-type
relationship with students. Students are viewed as consumers with reasonable
expectations of institutions for programs and services. In addition, although
the traditional deference to academic decision making persists, courts are ever
more willing to intervene in campus disciplinary actions involving both academic
concerns and disciplinary matters. Typically, the key question in disciplinary
matters is due process: How much notice and how much process is a student
entitled to in a given situation?
Similarly, although courts continue to afford broad discretion to academic
administrators in the area of admissions, institutions may be held in violation
of the anti-discrimination laws and Equal Protection Clause of the U.S.
Constitution when they act in a discriminatory manner, including in the emerging
area of disability. Immigration law is also a common issue in admissions. Deans
and chairs must also be aware of legislation that governs the confidentiality of
students' records, as well as constitutional provisions that protect the right
of students to organize and express themselves. Finally, negligence-based
institutional liability involving students is a critical concern for academic
Several state and federal regulations have a substantial effect on
administrative decisions for schools and departments, particularly those
addressing intellectual property, open meetings, family and medical leave,
funded research, and taxation. Similarly, schools and departments are typically
heavily involved in accreditation coordinated by private associations that serve
a quasi-regulatory function.
"The Academic Administrator and the Law" includes an extensive list of
references that provide more detailed analysis of particular topics. In no way
is the report intended to be a substitute for sound legal advice, nor can it
answer all legal questions a dean or chair might have. It does provide the
background needed to better understand the complex relationships between the law
and the administration of academic services and programs in postsecondary
Ford, Robert L. 1993. Interview Guide for
Supervisors. 4th ed. Washington, D.C.: College and University Personnel
Kaplin, William A., and Barbara A. Lee. 1995. "The Law of Higher Education."
San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Leap, Terry L. 1995. "Tenure, Discrimination, and the Courts." 2d ed. Ithaca,
N.Y.: Cornell Univ. Press.
Marchese, Theodore J., and Jane F. Lawrence. 1988. "The Search Committee
Handbook: A Guide to Recruiting Administrators." Washington, D.C.: American
Association for Higher Education. ED 346 760. 62 pp. MF-01; PC-03.
O'Neil, Robert M. 1993. "The Lawyer and the Client in the Campus Setting: Who
Is the Client, What Does the Client Expect, and How May the Attorney Respond?"
Journal of College and University Law 19(4): 333-42.
This ERIC digest is based on a full-length report in the ASHE-ERIC Higher
Education Report series Volume 25, Number 5, The Academic Administrator and the
Law: What Every Dean and Department Chair Should Know by J. Douglas Toma and
Richard L. Palm.