Centralized compliance goal with new position

Northern Kentucky University is in the early stages of hiring a compliance officer to begin before the Fall 2013 semester. Part of that position would be to monitor the university’s ethical and professional codes.

President Geoffrey Mearns is taking ethics at NKU seriously, which was clear when Athletic Director Scott Eaton was fired for violating the university’s professional code of conduct.

The addition of the position though, Mearns said, was “completely separate” from Eaton’s termination. The Board of Regents requested the position be made around fall 2012, according to Larry Meyer, director of Financial and Operational Auditing, who got involved with the hiring force then.

The officer, according to Vice President for Administration and Finance Ken Ramey, will primarily take care of coordinating the compliance and auditing faculty across campus “and pull them all together as one unit to ensure it’s meeting compliance requirements.”

“Things are complicated now,” Meyer said, because of the high number of state and federal compliance responsibilities spread out on campus.

This officer would communicate with Meyer and in turn the Board of Regents to “keep them in the loop.”

Although consolidating already existing compliance faculty would be the initial responsibility of the director, there could be some modification to the university’s code of conduct and professional ethics, according to Mearns and Meyer both.

Evaluating the university’s code of ethics would be a component of the officer position, Meyer said. There are no plans for changes currently, but “once they get their feet wet,” Meyer said, the officer may see the need for changes or the Board of Regents may request changes.

“My goal with this position is not simply to have us comply just with the letter of all of these rules and regulations, but how do we go about and create a culture of ethical conduct and ethical behavior,” Mearns said.

Eaton was officially fired from the university March 18, but on April 5, Mearns released to the campus community that Eaton had inappropriate relationships with four university employees and one former student over a span of at least 10 years.

Eaton did not disclose information about these relationships before the initial investigation into his conduct, which ultimately led to his firing. Mearns said Eaton acknowledged “this pattern of misconduct” and that it violates the university’s ethical principles and code of conduct.

Currently, in NKU’s ethical principles and code of conduct, relationships between employees, students and other employees are allowed, as long as it is reported to a higher supervisor if one of the parties in the relationship evaluates the other’s work, so “that suitable arrangements can be made for an objective evaluation of the student or employee.”

Eaton supervised two of the women who were employed by NKU and the student was in a course he taught during their relationship. At the onset of the university’s investigation into Eaton’s conduct, he failed to admit to these relationships, as well as not reporting them to a supervisor during the relationships’ existence, according to Mearns.

For Mearns, this is a serious offense because of Eaton’s “significant responsibility” and he has high expectations for NKU administrators in top positions at the university, which Eaton did not fulfill. His pattern of untruthfulness prior to and during the investigation was a leading factor in Eaton’s termination, Mearns said.

In some higher education institutions, there are codes in place to completely prohibit faculty, namely professors, and student relationships. The American Association of University Professors, an organization that defines fundamental professional values, has a policy on consensual relationships.

It states: “In their relationships with students, members of the faculty are expected to be aware of their professional responsibilities and to avoid apparent or actual conflict of interest, favoritism or bias.”

NKU’s code does include a similar take on faculty and student relationships, seen specifically in Eaton’s termination case. For Mearns, his decision to almost immediately fire Eaton after allegations were made was just about his pattern of untruthfulness.

But the president understands how important the “morale of the department” is when relationships form within departments.

“Part of the reason the regulations say you don’t engage in that is because people will ask questions,” Mearns said. “[Other faculty] immediately begin to question whether or not decisions that supervisor makes are fair and impartial or whether they are guided by that relationship. That’s why the relationships are damaging to the institution.”

The timeline for hiring the director of compliance is not yet determined, but the process has begun. Ramey said he hopes to have someone on board by mid-May or early June of this year.