Higher Education Team

Our Approach  |  Our History  |  Our Practice  |  Resources  |  Our Team

 

Our Approach

A Focus on Higher Education

For decades, institutions of higher education have depended on Steptoe & Johnson to help them navigate a swiftly changing educational landscape by designing policies and processes that serve to expand opportunities and minimize risk. When we work with an educational institution, we apply our broad and diverse experiences to enhance their strategic position. While we offer experience in addressing and remediating active legal matters, we also provide proactive, long-range guidance. Our goal is to help clients avoid the courthouse, when possible.

Higher Education Fact Sheet

a focus on education

 

Our History

Founded in 1913, as energy and commodity markets were experiencing explosive growth in the U.S., Steptoe & Johnson quickly gained a national reputation in the fields of banking, insurance, litigation, mineral, oil and gas, and public utility law. A central ingredient in the early rise of the firm to national prominence was a strong relationship between founding partner Louis Johnson and Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Harry Truman.

From its auspicious beginnings, the firm developed broadly recognized practices in higher education, energy, finance, real estate, health care, labor and employment, and litigation. Over the last century, Steptoe & Johnson has served national and state government leaders, industry leaders and some of the largest and most influential international corporations in the world. Today, the firm has 15 offices and more than 370 lawyers and professionals serving clients across the U.S.

 

Our Practice

To best serve our clients, we have built a team that can draw from an array of perspectives and experiences. The Steptoe & Johnson Higher Education Team includes individuals who have:

  • Served as academic administrators and faculty
  • Worked at all levels of government, including national, state and local
  • Led public policy initiatives
  • Served as board members of educational institutions and non-profit organizations

Our attorneys are frequently featured at national and international conferences, offering guidance on issues affecting educational institutions, and have authored some of the most widely recognized titles on higher education law.

In addition to such professional experiences, our attorneys are experienced in advising educational institutions in a number of important areas:

 

Business Operations

higher education business operationsThe Steptoe & Johnson Higher Education Team brings the experience and appreciation for the nuances of campus culture and regulatory frameworks that shape the business of operating a college or university. Our attorneys work with institutions, executive leaders and boards to help them navigate and address a variety of complex issues, including evaluating insurance coverage and crafting partnership agreements, advising on issues related to distance learning, governance or institutional finances. Our attorneys have:

  • Participated with college leadership in development of five-year strategy to disassociate an institution from denominational affiliation
  • Reviewed, revised, and negotiated lease contracts between private higher education institutions and tenants
  • Developed governing documents for a higher education institution to operate an off campus pharmacy
  • Established a separate real estate foundation to protect the endowed assets of another foundation affiliated with a public university
  • Routinely assisted presidents, chief academic officers, and chief financial officers in revising and implementing policies and procedures to promote more effective business operations
  • Advised university on compliance with AAUP guidance and employee handbook with respect to tenure decisions and faculty dismissals during financial exigency
  • Reviewed and revised institution policies including faculty and student handbooks, for universities across the U.S.

 

Title IX & Other Anti-Discrimination Claims

In recent years, campuses across the country have witnessed a dramatic rise in claims of discrimination and harassment by students and employees. We partner with institutions to craft policies, offer trainings and create safeguards aimed at the prevention of such events. When claims of discrimination or harassment do arise, our attorneys offer both a sensitivity to the nature of such matters and experience in helping institutions navigate through all phases of the investigation and resolution of such matters. Steptoe attorneys understand the investment that each academic institution makes in its students and workforce, and it seeks to partner in helping to proactively protect the health and safety of campus communities. Our attorneys have:

  • Represented higher education institution in claims in all types of discrimination claims in front of the United States Department of Educations Office for Civil Rights, the EEOC, and the state civil rights commissions
  • Drafted sexual misconduct policies to comply with Title IX guidelines and provided training to Title IX Coordinators, investigative teams, and hearing panels at universities across the U.S.
  • Counseled higher education institutions related to a variety of employment discrimination issues, including the ADA, Title IV, and the human/civil rights acts of various states

 

Student Affairs

higher education student affairsCentral to the higher education experience is the cultivation of a robust community life, including clubs, fraternal associations, student governance, athletics, service-learning opportunities and travel study programs. The community created on a college campus offers a unique and valuable learning environment, but it is also complex. We work with institutions to ensure that the campus environment is intentionally structured to advance the interests of students and their safety. Our attorneys develop effective student handbooks and conduct codes, and design effective disciplinary processes. We also work with administrators, staff and faculty to provide guidance and training, so that they can function as effective student advocates. Our attorneys have:

  • Defended higher education institution against claims by former student relating to disciplinary action
  • Advised faith based higher education institution on the newly enacted portion of the Pennsylvania criminal code dealing with hazing on campus
  • Assisted institutions with navigating difficult student misconduct issues
  • Counseled institutions on the intersection of policy requirements and anti-discrimination issues

 

Labor & Employment

While innovative and dynamic, college and university campuses are amongst the most complex employment venues with various categories of employment, including faculty, staff, adjunct and student worker roles. The Steptoe & Johnson Higher Education Team has been recognized regionally and nationally for its employment counsel. We assist with the preparation of faculty and staff employment guides and contracts, investigation and resolution of workplace disputes, and work with clients on issues related to unions, ranging from elections and collective bargaining to representation before arbitration panels and the NLRB. Our representative experience includes:

  • Defended a university through trial in a negligence case where a former employee was accused of taking photographs of students without their knowledge
  • Defended higher education institution in litigation concerning termination of administrator

 

Unionization
 
Possible unionization on campuses creates additional complexities for institutions of higher education. The Steptoe & Johnson team has a record of success in exceeding expectations across the spectrum of labor issues, from organizing campaigns to decertification, and everything in between. Labor activities such as picketing and petitions for recognition can happen anytime and are often planned to occur at the most inconvenient times. Responsiveness in times of crisis is vitally important. Steptoe & Johnson has the depth to ensure that experienced lawyers are always ready to go, anytime or anywhere necessary. In addition, we work proactively with clients by training managers and supervisors to avoid issues whenever possible.
 
Tenure
 
When issues develop surrounding tenure and promotion decisions, the Steptoe & Johnson team works together with campus leadership to develop a strategy to address such issues. We counsel institutions of higher education on their tenure procedures and processes and provide representation in tenure-related litigation.
 
Employee Benefits & Executive Compensation
 
Steptoe & Johnson’s employee benefits team designs creative, effective solutions to align with each institutions’ legal needs in all facets of employee benefits and compensation law. We have extensive experience helping colleges and universities achieve their goals through the design, implementation, and administration of tax-qualified retirement plans, health plans, and non-qualified deferred compensation plans. We also advise institutions on officer and executive employment agreements, including executive compensation programs.
Our attorneys have:
  • Defended colleges and universities, as well as affiliated organizations, in grievances, faculty tenure matters and employee contract matters
  • Arbitrated on behalf of and advised multiple institutions of higher education regarding union issues
  • Defended a university through trial in a negligence case where a former employee was accused of taking photographs of students without their knowledge
  • Advised higher education clients on the employee benefits impacts of reductions in force, including voluntary and involuntary severance arrangements
  • Defended higher education institution in litigation concerning termination of administrator
  • Assisted institutions with reductions in force

 

Intellectual Property

higher education intellectual propertyAs intellectual centers, it is important for higher education institutions to undertake steps necessary to protect the original work of its faculty and intellectual collaborators. As colleges and universities increase the use of online course delivery modalities, they must have robust policies in place that guide employees, faculty, and students on the appropriate use of intellectual property and copywritten materials. Steptoe & Johnson attorneys have extensive experience in issues related to intellectual property rights, including trademark and copyright. In addition, as institutions of higher education market themselves and their programs, they often utilize logos and other forms of trade dress which have been the subject of considerable investments of time and money. Steptoe & Johnson can help to protect this investment for the benefit of institutions. 

 

Data Security

Colleges and universities hold large quantities of sensitive data regarding students, employees and others associated with the institution. At the same time, the use and preservation of such sensitive data is strictly regulated to protect individual privacy. Because of the value of the data held by colleges and universities, they are increasingly becoming prime targets for hackers.

Recognizing the importance of emerging issues associated with data protection, Steptoe & Johnson has cultivated a strong and experienced cybersecurity group. We can help colleges and universities improve their data security policies and processes and vigorously defend institutions if a breach occurs.

 

Regulatory Compliance

For colleges and universities, the cost and complexity of meeting an array of regulatory demands is growing ever more daunting. The Steptoe & Johnson Higher Education Team partners with institutions to craft policies and processes that ease regulatory burdens. Our attorneys work with institutions to conduct audits of compliance processes and we defend institutions in the event of an investigation. We work with institutions on matters related to student financial aid, international student support, and many other areas. The goal of our attorneys is to help institutions identify and implement the best and most efficient practices associated with regulatory compliance. Our attorneys have:

  • Advised multiple institutions of higher education on FERPA and ADA compliance with respect to COVID-19 contact tracing and testing records for students and employees
  • Assisted large institution in a comprehensive review of its financial aid operations to ensure compliance with federal student aid regulations
  • Assisted multiple institutions in addressing compliance with Clery Act reporting requirements
  • Provided support and counsel to institutions on issues related to the administration and management of restricted and endowed assets and the application of safeguards contained in the Uniform Prudent Management of Institutional Funds Act (UPMIFA)
  • Assisted multiple institutions in addressing immigration issues arising under the Student and Exchange Visitor Program
  • Assisted multiple institutions in addressing emotional support animal requirements imposed by the Fair Housing Act

 

Athletics

higher education athleticsWe have broad experience in working with both institutions and athletic conferences on issues ranging from program compliance to athlete safety and health. Our attorneys have partnered with NCAA, NAIA and NCCAA schools to help them ensure that their athletic programs are governed by effective and accountable policies and processes and, in the event of an investigation, we support institutions through the review and remediation process. Our attorneys have:

  • Represented university charged with multiple NCAA violations necessitating termination of athletic director's long-term employment agreement
  • Advised institutions of higher education and an individual conference on compliance with NCAA guidance regarding return-to-play during the COVID-19 pandemic
  • Advised institutions on appropriate handling of NCAA violations 
  • Negotiated employment contracts with athletic directors 
  • Assisted institutions in dealing with issues surrounding the welfare of student-athletes

 

Institutional Partnerships and Mergers

Strains upon higher education institutions have made the business of managing a college or university ever more challenging over the last decade. The COVID-19 pandemic has added to already existing pressures. In the face of such mounting challenges, many colleges and universities may consider forms of integration or deep collaboration in order to attain efficiencies of scale or to assist with financial challenges. The Steptoe & Johnson Higher Education Team works with institutions to explore potential pathways and to navigate regulatory, licensing and accreditation requirements that may influence key operational decisions. We bring an experienced perspective to any consideration of such potential institutional recalibrations. Our attorneys have:

  • Negotiated merger and asset purchase agreements between institutions of higher education
  • Negotiated and drafted an international nursing program agreement with a foreign university on behalf of a U.S. college
  • Assisted private higher education institution with purchasing the assets of another private institution and addressed related accreditation issues and student financial aid compliance concerns
  • Assisted private higher education institution in drafting and negotiating contracts for sale and provision of services related to teaching, transportation, remote learning and event management

 

Crisis Management

Steptoe & Johnson Higher Education attorneys are experienced in working with institutions during crisis settings to evaluate circumstances and develop appropriate responses. In the case of a crisis, institutions may confront many different types of challenges. In addition to potential legal and compliance issues, institutions may face student safety and health concerns, fiscal difficulties, physical plant disruptions, management dislocations and, not to be underestimated, public relations and misinformation challenges. We partner with institutions to address these and other types of challenges arising from an institutional crisis.

higher education partnerships and mergers

 

Resources

Client Alerts
Department of Education Offers New Guidance for Fall Campus Openings
The Legality of Mandatory COVID-19 Vaccine Policies at Ohio Higher Education Institutions
OCR Releases Resource on School Re-openings and Student Rights
Department of Education Issues New Guidance on Use of ARP Funds
College Health Association Recommends COVID Vaccine Mandate for Colleges and Universities
Staying Ahead of the Curve: How to Respond to the Heightened Challenges Facing Colleges
When the Virtual School Year Ends, Who Owns the Intellectual Property?
Department of Education Offers Recommendations on School Openings
Department of Education Begins Review of Title IX Regulations
Kentucky Offers Clarity Over Non-Attorney Advisors in Title IX Proceedings
Key Court Decisions Address Issues Concerning the Application of Title IX
U.S. DOE Issues New Guidance for Use of COVID Relief Funds
NLRB Paves the Way for Graduate Student Unions
A Cautionary Tale of Title IX Noncompliance
Federal Actions to Significantly Impact Educational Institutions
Biden Administration Undertakes Significant Higher Ed Policy Shifts
Compliance Audits - How to Prevent Major Title IX Issues
Student Lawsuits in the Wake of COVID-19 – A Recent Victory for One College
COVID-19 Civil Immunity Protections for Institutions of Higher Education
Ohio Passes Law Shielding Employers from Liability for COVID-19 Related Lawsuits
Department of Education Final Rule Covers Four Key Areas
NLRB Refuses to Meddle In Religious Institutions' Affairs
NCAA Member Institutions Face May 18 Deadline for Arrington Concussion Settlement Certifications
CARES Act: Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund
Leasing Residence Halls to Municipalities and Hospitals for COVID-19 Relief
 
 

 

Our Team

Our Higher Education Team is an experienced, talented and diverse group of legal practitioners that embraces challenge and is passionate about colleges and universities and the vital role that they play in our communities. As a team committed to the representation of educational institutions, our attorneys have an intense commitment to those with whom they work and serve.

 

Susan Llewellyn Deniker

Member, Chair, Labor & Employment Department

Michael E. Flowers

Member, Director of Diversity and Inclusion

Peter F. Lake

Senior Higher Education Attorney