LINK:  University of Chicago Magazine
About the Magazine | Advertising | Archives | Contact
LINK:  June 2005LINK:  featuresLINK:  chicago journalLINK:  investigationsLINK:  peer reviewLINK:  in every issue

link:  e-mail this to a friend

Chicago Journal ::

Talking points

Name: Beth Harris, AB’74.

Title: Vice president and general counsel (since 2001)

Previous positions: Associate general counsel for both the University and the U of C Hospitals; previously practiced corporate-securities law at a Chicago firm.

Other degrees: MA’78, psychology, University of Houston; JD’80, Northwestern University.

On the job: The University is a highly regulated enterprise. Overseeing four other attorneys, I advise the president, deans, and chairs on how to carry out their activities in a way that complies with these laws. In research, for example, there are regulations for human subjects, animals, biosafety, misconduct. Employment laws prohibit discrimination and sexual harassment, and protect people with disabilities. We deal with bond, real-estate, and zoning issues. In the area of intellectual property, where faculty develop inventions or drugs and want to patent and market them, we get involved in licensing the patents or the start-up companies. I keep the president up-to-date on matters involving litigation and potential legal risks.

Currently on the docket: We’re preparing to compete to retain the contract to manage Argonne National Laboratory for the Department of Energy, and the whole process has a legal context. We have regular meetings with the management team, talk about the kinds of initiatives to propose, whether we want a partner to help run the lab. Preparing the proposal for a government contract is a massive undertaking. The lab is integral to the work the University does in science now, so we’re working very hard to be in a position to retain the contract.
There are a number of issues involving the medical center—some lawsuits, many compliance issues. The University has maybe a dozen ongoing lawsuits at a time. At least half of those are employment-related issues, people who believe they were mistreated in some way or were unfairly let go. The rest are hard to categorize—occasional claims brought by students, occasional commercial claims.

Signs of a litigious society: Two or three years ago a student brought a claim that he didn’t get a general education as promised in the brochures. He lost, but it took a while.

Heeding Uncle Sam: There’s increasing focus on not-for-profits these days, a fallout of Sarbanes-Oxley, looking for similar accountability in not-for-profit institutions that we’ve seen in the corporate world. That’s meant a greater focus on compliance issues. So we’re seeing congressional hearings about whether there should be increased scrutiny of not-for-profits—increased tax regulation, for example. I advise the president and others about developments on those issues.

How she got here: As an undergraduate I studied human development. I was planning to go to graduate school, not law school. I grew up in an academic family and always assumed I would end up at a university. I started in graduate school studying developmental psychology. At the time there were not many jobs for academics—not that there ever are, but it was a particularly tough job market—and I was teaching introductory psychology at a place where the students weren’t anything like the students here. It made me rethink whether I really wanted to be teaching. And that’s when I decided to go to law school. In the end I wound up back at a university but doing something quite different.