Complex Laws Call for Export Compliance Guru

If anyone has the right stuff to handle the new wave of federal export control regulations that is crashing down on Vanderbilt and the nation’s other research universities, it’s Marcia E. Williams. An attorney, former airline pilot, business owner and classroom instructor, Williams, who has served as an assistant director of sponsored research at Vanderbilt since 2006, recently took on the newly created position of assistant director, export compliance. Her job: to develop and implement a system that allows the university and medical center to comply with complex U.S. export control laws and regulations.

Since the days of the Cold War, the United States has regulated export of sensitive technology to other countries. In the past this primarily centered on physical export of high-tech computer chips, advanced weapons systems, and other technology that could be used against the country. Activities of research universities generally were not subject to such regulation under a “fundamental research exemption.”

Since 9/11, however, you don’t even have to leave the country to get into trouble. Regulations apply increasingly to information as well as hardware—and not just to devices and data that researchers take abroad with them, but also to the access that researchers provide to foreign nationals, both students and visitors, in their labs at home. Regulations have grown more complicated, with different technologies restricted to different groups of countries.

“I’ve been in university administration nearly 27 years and have been involved in implementation of a variety of federal regulations,” says John Childress, director of Vanderbilt’s Division of Sponsored Research, “and this is, by far, the most difficult set of federal regulations to implement I’ve seen. Violations can involve significant fines and even jail time.”

Williams came to Vanderbilt with a 15-year career as an airline pilot, a law degree, and considerable expertise in areas such as pensions, medical malpractice, executive compensation, training and software development. While a pilot for United Airlines, she assisted in developing training courses and safety videos for pilots, flight attendants and dispatchers. She left her pilot position in 2004 and set up her own aviation law and consulting company.

In her new role, Williams says her goal is to set up a management system that is “as unburdensome and unobtrusive as possible. I find it an interesting, challenging and very relevant task.”

Explore Story Topics