According to the ACFE presenter at one of our live events, 6.4 percent of worldwide fraud cases occur in the education sector, which represents the fifth most-targeted industry by fraudsters out of 23 reported by members of the ACFE. And the three most frequent fraud schemes reported as perpetrated in the education sector are billing schemes, fraudulent expense reimbursements and corruption schemes. Most of the reporting CFE’s also seem to agree that nonprofit institutions’ greatest fraud related challenge is mitigating reputational risk. Good faculty members and students won’t join fraudulent universities. Governments and donors won’t financially contribute to organizations they don’t trust.
Thus, institutions of higher learning aren’t anymore immune to fraud than any other large organization. However, the probability of occurrence of fraud risks may be somewhat higher in colleges and universities because of their promoted environment of collegiality, which may lead to more decentralization and a consequent lack of basic internal controls. Federal and state governments, as well as donors, have increased the pressure on universities to implement better governance practices and on their boards of governors to exercise their fiduciary responsibilities more efficiently.
Which brought our speaker to the issue of regular risk assessments, but tailored specifically to the unique needs of the educational environment. Colleges and universities around the world should be actively encouraged by their governing boards and counsels to perform regular fraud risk assessments and vigorously implement and enforce compliance with targeted internal controls, such as proper segregation of duties and surprise audits. Of course, as with all organizations, universities can prevent fraud by segregating a task of requesting a financial transaction from those of approving it, processing the payment, reconciling the transaction to the appropriate accounts and safeguarding the involved asset(s). Surprise audits should be just that: unannounced supervisory reviews. This creates not just an atmosphere of collegiality and support but one in which the perceived opportunity to commit fraud is lowered.
As I’ve indicated again and again in the pages of this blog, the most powerful fraud prevention measure any organization can take is the education of its staff, top to bottom. Educating faculty, staff members and students about the university’s ethics (or anti-fraud) policies is important not only to prevent fraud but to preserve the institution’s reputation. It’s also important to develop ethics policies carefully and implement them in accordance with the particular culture and character of the institution.
Culturally, universities, like most nonprofit educational institutions, don’t like heavy-handed policies, or controls, because faculty members perceive them as impediments to their research and teaching activities. After going through an appropriate anti-fraud training program, every employee and faculty member (many higher-education institutions actually view faculty above the instructor level as quasi-independent contractors) should come to understand the nature and role of internal controls as well as the negative consequences associated with fraud.
University administrators, faculty and staff members can be motivated to prevent fraud on a basis of self-interest because its occurrence might affect their chances of promotions and salary increases and tarnish the external reputation of the university, which could then affect its financial situation and, hence, their individual prospects.
ACFE training tells us that organizational administrators who don’t get honest feedback and don’t hear and address fraud tips quickly can get in trouble politically, legally and strategically. All universities should implement user-friendly reporting mechanisms that allow anyone to anonymously report fraud and irregular activities plus deliver healthy feedback on leadership’s strengths and weaknesses. This will keep direct lines of communication open among all employees and senior university administrators. These tools will not only strengthen the fight against fraud but also advance the university’s strategic mission and refine senior administrators’ leadership styles. You can’t manage something you can’t see. Such tried and true mechanisms as independent internal audit departments and/or involved audit committees, should provide effective oversight of reporting mechanisms.
Still, many universities still resist pressure from their external stakeholders to implement hotlines because of concern they might create climates of mistrust among faculty members. Faculty members’ tendency to resist any effort to have their work examined and questioned may explain this resistance. Necessary cultural changes take some time, but educational institutions can achieve them with anti-fraud training and a substantial dose of ethical leadership and tone at the top.
From a legal perspective, colleges and universities, like any other nonprofit organization, must proactively demonstrate due diligence by adopting measures to prevent fraud and damage to their individual reputations. They’re also financially and ethically indebted to governments and donors to educate tomorrow’s leaders by demonstrating their ability to ensure that their internal policies and practices are sound.
Senior university administrators also must be able to show that they investigate all credible allegations of fraud. In addition, independent, professional and confidential fraud investigations conducted by you, the CFE, allow a victim university and its senior administrators to:
— determine the exact sources of losses and hopefully identify the perpetrator(s);
— potentially recover some or all of financial damages;
— collect evidence for potential criminal or civil lawsuits;
— avoid possible discrimination charges from terminated employees;
— identify internal control weaknesses and address them;
— reduce future losses and meet budget targets;
— comply with legal requirements such as senior administrators’ fiduciary duties of loyalty and reasonable care;
— reduce imputed university liability which may result from employee misconduct;
As CFE’s we should encourage client universities to adequately train and sensitize administrators, faculty and staff members about their ethics policies and the general problems related to occupational fraud in general. Administrators should also consider implementation of anonymous reporting programs and feedback processes among all stakeholders and among the senior administration. They should perform regular fraud risk assessments and implement targeted internal controls, such as proper segregation of duties and conflict-of-interest disclosures. Senior administrators should lead by example and adopt irreproachable behaviors at all times (tone at the top). Finally, faculty members’ job incentives should be aligned with the university’s mission and goals to avoid dysfunctional and illegal practices. All easier said than done, but, as a profession, let’s encourage them to do it when we have the chance!