Criminal Investigations on Campus
BY PETER KUSHIBAB
“Once you enter this family, there’s no gettin’ out,” admonishes Mob boss Tony Soprano to protégé
Christopher Moltisanti on his elevation to the status of “made guy” in the television series “Sopranos.”
College officials who have read various media reports over the last few years might wonder if, by
becoming higher education leaders, they somehow entered a lawless family as well:
• A vice president for enrollment management
and three other administrators at a community
college in the Midwest are indicted for allegedly
falsifying athletes’ grade records.
• The attorney general for the State of New
York accuses college officials of engaging in fraudulent student loan practices.
• Three student affairs officers at a university in
the Northeast are indicted over the death of a
student from alcohol poisoning at a fraternity initiation. (Prosecutors later dismissed the charges.)
College administrators constantly strive to
protect their institutions from civil liability. They
implement risk management initiatives, policies,
and training programs to prevent lawsuits; few
seriously envision the potential for criminal
liability. It is unlikely that an institution will face
an indictment. If a criminal investigation reveals
unlawful activity, the alleged perpetrators will face
charges; chances are the college or university will
not be expected to cover their defense costs.
Nevertheless, a criminal investigation into activities at
higher education institutions can prove to be a nightmare for
the entire campus community. It disrupts the business of
teaching and learning and distracts decisionmakers from
pressing campus needs. Subsequent indictments derail careers
and stain professional reputations.
While preventing a criminal inquiry may be difficult, if not
impossible, senior student affairs officers (SSAOs) and their
institutional colleagues might consider some introspection in
hopes of avoiding a campus visit by members of their local
law enforcement agencies.
• Student affairs administrators should be mindful of what
is happening at sister institutions nationwide. Prosecuting
attorneys are often inspired by what their counterparts in
other states are investigating. The recent inquiry into student
loan practices is a good example. As soon as New York’s
attorney general voiced his concerns over lending practices
and potential conflicts of interest, attorney general colleagues
around the nation issued stern warnings against questionable
activities at campuses in their own states. Financial aid administrators across the country rapidly took the cue and looked
into their own instititions’ practices.
• College officials should re-assess the manner in which
they maintain documents and records. A criminal investigation will nearly always include scrutiny of institutional
records: everything from financial spreadsheets and meeting
minutes to telephone message pads, desk calendars, and e-mail
messages. The harder it is for an institution to produce
records that have been subpoenaed, the greater the possibility
that an investigator will conclude the school has something to
hide or that key evidence has been destroyed.
As e-mail becomes the essential communication tool among
college officials, electronic messages are inevitably of particular
interest to prosecutors. College e-mail protocols, therefore,
should reinforce to users that any e-mail message on the
school’s network may be subject to subpoena. E-mail messages
at public institutions might be subject to review under state
freedom of information acts.