One does not immediately associate astrophysics with affirmative action. Nevertheless, the United States Office of Federal Compliance Programs (OFCCP) is examining the University's adherence to government affirmative action policies as a result of the receipt of a large grant in the astrophysics department.
"This is a pre-award audit, which means it is tied to our having been awarded a large federal contract," said Beth Harris, general counsel for the University. "It's in part a good thing. We got a very nice award in the department of physics."
The University receives grants from various government divisions, making it a type of federal contractor.
After receiving large sums of money from the government, federal contractors must be inspected to make sure that they are in compliance with federal hiring regulations, including laws concerning non-discrimination and employment. The OFCCP performs audits for the U.S. Department of Labor.
"A lot of what the OFCCP is concerned about has to do with human resources and personnel matters," said Donald Reaves, vice-president for administration and chief financial officer of the University. "They'll be looking at hiring practices, promotions, recruitment, the university's recruitment policies, compensation issues."
According to Aneesah Ali, assistant provost for the University, the OFCCP audit is a three-step process.
"First there's a desk audit, where we submit documentation. Then there's a site visit. Usually that's followed by a request for additional information and a determination," she said.
The OFCCP audit of the University began during the summer of 2002. The site visit is scheduled for the week of January 27. During this time, the auditor will meet with Reaves, and may also schedule interviews with other University managers and employees.
"We don't know who they'll interview until they get here," Harris said, adding that the audit process will probably not affect students. This audit is no indication of wrongdoing on the University's part. The OFCCP audits federal contractors periodically, as well as in cases such as this.
"With federal compliance requirements comes the possibility and the expectation of auditing," Ali said. "You have regulations and basically they want to see if the regulations are being followed -- if there are adjustments that need to be made in our practices or policies."
There are a wide range of outcomes that could take place as a result of an OFCCP audit. "The worst thing that could happen to a federal contractor would be debarment--if a federal contractor loses its status," Ali said. "You want to remain...a federal contractor. We've never had our federal contractor status interrupted."
If an employer were debarred as a result of an audit, it would have to go through a process to be reinstated as a federal contractor.
This outcome is extremely rare, according to Ali.
Harris does not anticipate that any significant problems will be found during the audit. "I think we're in good shape," she said. "Typically, they may find some minor things that they want corrective action, but I wouldn't expect them to find significant problems."
"Many times when these sorts of audits take place they're very helpful in that they might point out things that you could do a better job of. But I don't have any reason to believe that there's anything going on at the University of Chicago that would result in any sort of fine or violation on the part of the University."
While the University has not been audited by the OFCCP in recent years, this type of audit is quite routine for federal contractors.
"There are site visits from grant officers from time to time. There are audits from the various state agencies from time to time. This is the same sort of thing," Harris said.