Auburn University compliance program: honoring the culture and enhancing the institution

When it comes to Auburn University, Kevin Robinson is certainly an authority and trusted advisor on many things. He spent his formative years there as an undergrad, relishing in the Bo Jackson football era. After earning his degrees, he started his career there, and 28 years later, he serves as the Associate Vice President of Internal Audit, Compliance and Privacy. Kevin and the Auburn family hold their institution in very high regard. He says, “Auburn has a lot of great things going on. There’s an intense loyalty and a very unique culture at Auburn.”  It is this loyalty that allows Auburn’s leaders to achieve the dedication required to accomplish major transformations within the institution.

Auburn University, located in Auburn, Alabama, became the state’s first land-grant public institution in 1872, and is among America’s few universities designated as a land-grant, sea-grant and space-grant research center. As such, Auburn receives the benefits of the Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890, which grant federally controlled land to states to be used for the practical teaching of agriculture, science, military science and engineering.

Similar to a state system, Auburn is comprised of four divisions: a main campus in Auburn; a campus in Montgomery, whose student population includes more non-traditional students; a cooperative extension system; and agriculture experiment stations. One of the requirements of land-grant institutions is that they have extension offices in every one of Alabama’s 67 counties.  Additionally, their agriculture experiment stations span several research farms across the state. Through 4-H and nutritional and financial management education programs, youth all across Alabama are familiar with Auburn.

While there are certainly other schools like Auburn across the United States, there are several aspects that make it different and unique – things that make the university stand out in a crowd. One of these things is its new compliance program model. Just as the university as a whole evolved over many years, so has the compliance program at Auburn. A few years ago, a formal compliance program did not exist at Auburn University. With the help of Kevin’s forward-looking leadership team and dedicated partner Baker Tilly, institutional compliance at Auburn looks very different today.

One of the critical elements to building the formal compliance program at Auburn was creating a program structure that fit within the culture. “The culture matters a lot with regard to compliance. We’ve had success within this new compliance structure because we understand and value the culture here, and made the necessary changes honoring the expectations and required timing dictated by that culture.” Taking a more consultative approach fit well. As the chief compliance officer and champion for making this change to more centralized compliance oversight, Kevin acts as a trusted advisor to institution leaders and the dedicated compliance positions distributed across the institution. Subsequently, the transition to a formal and more centralized compliance approach occurred somewhat seamlessly, despite the fact that there are not formal reporting lines.

Another major factor that impacted the success of the new compliance program approach was the addition of “compliance” to the audit committee title, now referred to as the Audit and Compliance Committee. The audit chair is a formal compliance program champion, and now talks about compliance in every board meeting. This tone at the top sends an important expectation regarding compliance matters.

Kevin and his team worked diligently to get Auburn where it is today. However, they couldn’t have done it alone. Kevin attributes their success to the partnership and expertise Baker Tilly provided throughout the process. “Having Baker Tilly come in and do the initial, objective assessment was critical. We wouldn’t have been able to go as far as we’ve gone, and our compliance program wouldn’t be where it is today without the industry expertise and validation from Baker Tilly,” Kevin says.

Over time, Kevin has developed a nationally respected newsletter, Case in Point (with a distribution of over 1,200), to encourage proactive risk management in higher education. This forum has allowed for the discussion of compliance program expectations along with education on key compliance concepts and risks. Kevin is most proud of the impact this program implementation has made on his colleagues and Auburn University. “We’ve helped make an impact on the culture, in that we now take a very proactive approach to compliance matters; and therefore, we are continually having the right discussions at the right time, and we’re avoiding trouble down the line.”

Key takeaways from Auburn’s experience in evolving to a more centralized compliance program are:  the importance of understanding and appreciating the culture; a collaborative approach to build consultative relationships; and key champions at the board level, who are representative of academic and administrative leadership. With these aspects in place, other institutions can follow in Auburn’s footsteps to success.

More details about how Auburn achieved success on its compliance program journey are documented in its monthly newsletter, Case in Point. To access the newsletter, click here for archived issues. To subscribe to this newsletter, send your email address to: gotterw@auburn.edu.

For more information on this topic, or to learn how Baker Tilly higher education specialists can help, contact our team.