UNT's Texas Higher Education Law Conference focuses on critical campus issues

By Mary Murphy

Higher education practitioners, licensed counselors, attorneys, campus police officers and others from across Texas gathered at the Gateway Center March 21-22 for the 20th annual Texas Higher Education Law Conference hosted by UNT's College of Education.

Nearly 300 attended the conference to learn more about current and upcoming federal and state laws and regulations in place for higher education.

"This conference has a history of being a very informative and worthwhile conference for folks in higher education," said Mike Smith, chief of police at Lubbock Christian University and conference attendee. "Anytime we can discuss how to be ahead of the curve, whether it's meeting legislation or our other requirements, it helps us better serve our students and our communities."

The Texas Higher Education Law Conference was founded in 1996 by Richard Rafes, a 1990 doctoral graduate of the UNT College of Education and former UNT senior vice president for administration and general counsel. He is now the interim vice president for Academic Affairs at Peru State College. Rafes began the conference while he was at UNT to help the Texas higher education community stay up-to-date with federal and state laws and regulations, as well as to generate scholarship funds for the College of Education.

The proceeds from the conference are used as scholarship money for UNT's higher education master's and doctoral programs. It is estimated that this year's conference generated $25,000 in scholarships.

At the conference, speakers gave presentations on topics including technology dangers, employee substance abuse and mental illness, new policies on campus carry, issues relating to transgender students on campus, the Clery Act and free speech. Several presentations focused on sexual assaults and hazing on campus, including a student panel discussion about the benefits of sexual misconduct prevention programs, how to prevent hazing and related incidents, and risk factors that contribute to sexual assault on campus.

According to conference evaluations, many attendees enjoyed the "Prevention in Action!" session, a student panel discussion about sexual misconduct prevention programs they found beneficial, and Steven Healy's session on the Clery Act. Specialized topics, such as legal issues surrounding construction on campus and tips for youth camps, were also addressed during breakout sessions at the conference.

"There's something here for everybody," said Marc Cutright, conference director. "We try to serve both broad interests and more specialized interests, which creates a broad and diverse draw."

One of the most beneficial aspects of the conference is the ability for practitioners to learn how their associates are handling confusing legal issues.

"We already know what we need to be compliant with from the past several years, but here we learn from our counterparts," said Clare Iannelli, dean of Compliance and Judicial Affairs at San Jacinto College. "A college can do their best to follow and be complaint, but you also want to learn – what are [your counterparts] doing? What are the new ideas out there? What are the different ways that they're being unique and complying with federal regulation?"

Cutright hopes that practitioners can find answers to these questions at the Higher Education Law Conference.

"[Those who work in higher education] are faced with difficult issues every day – sexual assaults, issues relating to the Americans with Disabilities Act, injuries on campus," Cutright said. "What we want [conference attendees] to come away with is not the ability to act as their own lawyer but to answer the initial question, 'Now what do I do?'."

The next annual Higher Education Law Conference will be held on the UNT campus March 27-28, 2017.