Do universities even know the extent of their digital estate?

May 11 2023

Universities and other higher education institutions tend to have a large digital footprint, spread across different sites and channels that have grown over time. In many cases this represents a “sprawl” with uncontrolled growth of the website estate, lacking central governance and controls.

While there will be a central website, there may also be multiple local faculty and departmental sites, some of which have out of date content, are off-brand, and are no longer maintained. It’s no exaggeration to say that the central or digital marketing team may not even fully know the true extent of their website estate and be aware of all the university websites that are out there.

This can be a significant problem because there may be governance issues such as data privacy, safeguarding and brand compliance relating to a site and its content. There are also legal requirements relating to digital inclusivity that must be adhered to. Non-compliance opens up the risk of a lawsuit being filed against a university.

In this article we’re going to explore why universities have tended to acquire such huge web sprawls and what needs to be done to reduce the related risks.

Why do universities end up with such a huge digital footprint?

Consider the potential huge web and digital estate of a university that is publicly available to view or available to students and staff. There might be a central website, a campaign site, microsites, a plethora of faculty and departmental sites, sites for different projects, sites for collaboration with other universities, research-related sites, multiple learning environments, multiple intranets and so on.

“Web sprawl” is a common challenge for every organization, but universities are particularly prone to it due to the lack of central governance that is applied. Culturally, universities tend to be decentralized with faculties, departments and even individual academics having considerable autonomy in some areas, including the approach to creating websites and content. The combination of localized marketing budgets and the easy ability to create websites at little or no cost using platform such as WordPress, means that many “local” sites get set up without any oversight from the central digital and marketing team.

Once a website is set up, there is seldom any content lifecycle management or governance applied, so sites and content don’t get updated or decommissioned. People move on to new roles and the website gets forgotten about.

The result is a disparate set of websites with inconsistent branding and design based on a variety of different platforms, with some content that is inaccurate, not relevant and non-compliant.

Why an uncontrolled website estate provides so many risks

Clearing up an uncontrolled website estate might not feel like a priority item for busy web teams, but it presents a significant risk.

Firstly, it’s very hard for a central digital team to fully know what’s out there. There will have been some sites that will have been created without their knowledge. It’s also particularly difficult to track sites that have been built using different content management systems (CMS) so there is no back-end search that will show up the content and sites that have been created.

Second, there will have been little to no oversight and governance applied to site design, technical standards and content. Sites will be off brand with content and features that are out of date and may have various issues relating to data privacy and even security. Sites are very unlikely to meet legal requirements relating to web accessibility.

Any site audits that you have may have carried out in the past to your main corporate website to meet regulatory needs will not have been made to your entire digital estate. And any required changes to be made to all your sites, will also not have been made, and are now somewhere between difficult and impossible to execute.

Why lack of compliance around digital inclusivity is a massive problem for Higher Education

Perhaps the most significant risk lies with a lack of compliance around the digital inclusivity of your website estate. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) means it is a legal requirement for your website to be accessible to people living with disabilities.

Additionally, Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 requires federal agencies (and also organizations funded by or working with an agency) to make their technologies accessible. This includes public higher education institutions.

The potential to be hit by a lawsuit is not an idle threat. Each year law firms are sending ADA demand letters to hundreds and thousands of organizations, including those in the public sector. The need to respond to a letter and get the right legal support can cost around $27,000. A lawsuit can even end up with costs in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The result is that universities with a large, uncontrolled and non-compliant digital sprawl are particularly vulnerable to an ADA-related lawsuit.

What do boards need to do to reduce the risk?

Unfortunately, there is no quick fix or magic wand approach that will instantly eliminate the risks around governance and compliance that exist across a digital footprint. However, taking a comprehensive and structured approach will significantly reduce the risk. Consider taking the following steps:

  1. Find out the extent of your digital footprint* Try to get an accurate handle on the extent of your digital footprint via a web and content audit. You can use Google to search for sites, but more likely you will have to reach out to different stakeholders across the university to work out all the sites that you have.
  2. Identify the risks As part of the audit, try to understand the likely level of risk across each site relating to different areas such as brand compliance and privacy. To what extent is content out of date? It’s also essential to understand the level of risk relating to a lack of compliance around digital inclusivity. Here, tools like [AAAtraq’s free service](https://AAAtraq.com/check/) can help. Here is important that any assessment of risk is independent of those doing the work – covering both internal teams and vendors. It should also be understandable (non-technical) to stakeholders so they can fully assess the level of risk. Any audit should also not be too prolonged due to the dynamic nature of the web estate.
  3. Take appropriate action for each site The other side of understanding the risk is also then working out the individual actions that need to take place in order to reduce the risk across each site. For some sites it will likely mean closing the entire site down. For others, it will mean digital teams putting various fixes in order to make a site compliant around accessibility.
  4. Reduce the financial risk Unfortunately, there is still an ongoing financial risk around not being compliant with the law relating to digital inclusivity. External changes, content added to your site or human error can lead to accessibility issues. If you are issued with an ADA demand letter or even worse a lawsuit is filed, you will incur thousands of dollars in legal fees. This could even stretch to hundreds of thousands. Taking out costs Indemnity cover is the only realistic way to reduce the financial risk.
  5. Reduce future risks It’s important to take preventative action to stop your digital estate sprawling again. This will involve a mixture of setting compliance processes in place, streamlining and standardising content management practices, and also using the right monitoring tools.

Take compliance seriously and reduce the risk

It’s imperative to reduce the risks associated with your extended digital estate seriously. It’s hard to change overnight, and old habits die hard. However, it is important to take the appropriate action to better control your digital estate, introduce governance processes, and reduce current, future and financial risks.

The issue also needs to be regarded as an organizational risk, not just a technical or operational issue. The level of financial risk as well as potential reputational risk means that oversight should sit at executive board level. It’s time to give compliance the prioritization and attention it needs.

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