Ahlers & Cooney has a long-standing tradition of representing Iowa institutions of higher learning. We are particularly proud of this tradition, as we believe these venerable institutions serve as one of the primary foundations of a civilized society. We serve as general counsel and bond counsel to a number of Iowa’s private colleges, universities, and community colleges across the state and as bond counsel to Iowa’s public universities, which are governed by the Board of Regents. Members of the Practice Group are at the forefront of the development of college and university law. Several are members in the National Association of College and University Attorneys, the leading national organization in higher education law.

The range of our services for Higher Education clients include:

  • Corporate Governance
  • Labor and Employment
  • Deferred Compensation
  • Student Issues
  • Finance
  • Litigation
  • Contracting
  • Construction
  • Real Estate
  • Environmental Law

Our ability to consistently provide sophisticated advice and to produce a quality work product is attributable in part to our deep appreciation for and understanding of the unique nature of the academic environment. We are passionate about each of our client’s stated missions, and we work tenaciously to ensure that our approach to their legal issues and the results we seek to achieve are consistent with their educational philosophies.

Our attorneys have a wealth of experience in handling virtually every facet of the employer-employee relationship, including complex issues pertaining to faculty tenure and academic freedom, drafting and negotiating contracts of college and university presidents, advising clients on employee benefits and taxation, providing counsel on employee performance and conduct issues and drafting employment policies, conducting investigations and training on employment-related matters, and engaging in collective bargaining and arbitration in organized settings. We have also litigated a broad range of employment disputes.

For many of our higher education clients, certain legal issues arise infrequently, and as a consequence, the administration may not be familiar with the procedures, documentation, time frames, and/or issues involved and the consequences of certain actions or inaction on their part. Our goal is to advise clients of those procedures and issues early in the representation so they know what to expect and are knowledgeable in exercising their business judgment.

Due to the wide range of legal issues faced by institutions in higher education, we carefully assign each project in order to provide our clients with highly specialized legal expertise. Whether it is proactive counseling or representation on a hotly litigated case, we have the resources and experience necessary to provide effective representation.

Representative Projects

  • A higher education client was facing the very real prospect of having to close its doors, which would have had devastating consequences on its current students, resulted in the loss of jobs for the entire institution, and dealt a devastating blow to its local economy. The firm put together a team of specialists to assist the client in partnering with another institution of higher education. The team’s finance lawyers worked with the bond Trustee and other financial experts to seek necessary judicial permission for the restructuring of the institution’s debt and to allow the transaction to proceed. Employment lawyers worked on myriad employment issues that would allow for a smooth transition to new employment for the vast majority of the client’s workforce. The hallowed halls continue to be filled with bright minds that are eager to learn. The vast majority of the client’s employees remain gainfully employed, and the local community continues to reap the benefits of having an institution of higher learning in small-town Iowa.
  • The finance lawyers have provided assistance on a range of projects, including:
    • Assistance with respect to Big Ten and Big 12 university athletic facilities and stadium financings on a tax exempt and taxable basis which served as bridged financing in contemplation of certain gifts and other revenue streams.
    • Provided counsel to a small private liberal arts college with respect to refinancing all of the college’s indebtedness pursuant to a 2-year bond anticipation note, which is anticipated to be refinanced pursuant to the USDA’s direct loan program, resulting in significant savings for the college. The savings will allow the college “head room” for needed academic programs and facilities.
    • Structured the financing for a much needed STEM facility for a community college with the assistance of the college’s foundation.
    • Assisted several private colleges with respect to refinancing their variable rate debt (enhanced with bank letters of credit) with fixed rate privately placed transactions on a tax-exempt basis, resulting in substantial savings and less restrictive financial covenants.
    • Serves as bond counsel to certain Iowa community colleges with respect to the state of Iowa’s “new jobs training program.”
  • Our attorneys have partnered with our clients in advising on financial matters and restructuring their workforces in order to address economic pressures. The goal was to make changes with the least possible disruption to the learning environment while recognizing with sensitivity the dignity of the individuals whose employment was to be negatively impacted. In addressing these issues, systems were designed to ensure that decisions were driven by legitimate business reasons, severance packages were designed, offered to, and accepted by the impacted employees, and full releases of any and all legal claims were obtained. The campuses made their transitions smoothly and are successfully operating under a more efficient and streamlined version of their former selves.
  • Our finance lawyers prepared much needed state bonding legislation for the benefit of the University of Iowa in connection with the severe flooding on the campus during summer 2008. Our Public Finance attorneys routinely draft various bond-related legislation in order to allow institutions of higher education to accomplish their goals.
  • A large community college and several members of its executive staff were named in a lawsuit brought in federal district court by a current executive who unsuccessfully sought the president’s position at the college. The lawsuit included various claims sounding in race discrimination, harassment and retaliation. The firm successfully procured summary judgment on all claims and successfully defended the ruling on appeal before the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals. See Gilbert v. Des Moines Area Community College, 495 F.3d 906 (8th Cir. 2007)
  • A private college and one of its Resident Assistants were named as defendants in a lawsuit by a non-student who alleged she was sexually assaulted by a student in a college dormitory room. We obtained summary judgment on behalf of the college and defended that judgment on appeal before the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals. See Freeman v. Busch, 349 F.3d 582 (8th Cir. 2003)
  • Defend private colleges and universities in administrative agency enforcement actions, including before the Iowa Civil Rights Commission (employment and student issues), Iowa OSHA, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), and the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (OCR).
  • Draft, revise, and assist with the implementation of policies and internal procedures specific to higher education issues, including Sexual Misconduct under Title IX and the Clery Act; Non-Discrimination and Harassment; Service Animals; Reasonable Accommodation of Disabilities for student and employee contexts; minors on campus; faculty governance; and employee/staff.
  • Provide day-to-day advice on employment matters, including FMLA, FLSA/wage payment, employee benefits, hire and termination issues, and complex issues of faculty governance and tenure (including work with the AAUP).
  • Advise on and assist with internal student discipline matters, including under Sexual Misconduct Policies (Title IX and the Clery Act) and general student conduct code violations.  Assist with on-going Title IX and student misconduct investigations on a daily basis.
  • Advise on and assist with the preparation of Annual Security Reports (ASRs) under the Clery Act, including interpretation and application of sexual offense provisions.
  • On a daily basis, draft, revise, and negotiate miscellaneous contracts specific to higher education issues, including athletics, employment, facilities use, and student internship affiliation agreements.
    • Draft/negotiate multiple coaches’ contracts
    • Successfully terminated several coaches without litigation
    • Draft/review athletic apparel agreements
    • Draft/review real estate agreements
    • Draft software, IT and data/cloud computing contracts