Feature: To Manage Risks, Focus on Academic Mission

By Paula Vene Smith, Professor of English, Grinnell College

Today’s climate of media scrutiny, reduced public funding, and unprecedented legal exposure requires leaders in higher education to pay serious attention to issues of risk. Knowing their institution could be damaged by any number of potential incidents and hazards, some college leaders have grown curious about what risk management can offer.

Comprehensive (or “enterprise”) risk management is a model for identifying risks by category—whether the risk involves finances, strategic aims, day-to-day operations, compliance, or reputation—and then creating plans to rank and address them.

Unfortunately, because of its roots in the corporate world, enterprise risk management may neglect academic values that are all-important to an institution of higher education. Take the example of student safety. A professional risk manager might approach this issue primarily in terms of compliance and finances, with outcomes measured by how much a safety violation could cost.

But college leaders who share the ideals of Bringing Theory to Practice (BTtoP) want to ensure that even the most practical decisions are guided by a core academic purpose, to advance learning and discovery in a context of student well-being and civic engagement.

Without minimizing the financial side, these leaders will frame the risk quite differently. They’ll start with the premise that a college education offers learning activities—science experiments, study abroad, art studio work—which, by their nature, can place students at risk.

Hands-on learning can offer invaluable insights and skills, yet the concomitant dangers may threaten another part of our mission—namely to promote students’ well-being, beginning with their physical safety. Finding a way to resolve this tension between two elements we value (an immersive, sometimes hazardous learning environment versus our commitment to student well-being) offers the truest guide for developing a plan to mitigate risk without compromising educational quality.

Given the connection between risk and academic mission, it makes sense for the president and senior staff, in partnership with elected faculty leaders, to discuss the institution’s top risks and how to approach them. Keeping the mission central, an academic framework of risk management better serves the specialized context of liberal education.

Grinnell College in Iowa has developed such a model through the Purposeful Risk Engagement Project (PREP). The 2013–14 pilot study launched a “campus tour of risk” to heighten risk awareness among faculty, staff, and students and to identify top areas for action. Risk action plans ranged from adding disability services to strengthening data security. All risks were evaluated according to their effects on the academic mission.

One top risk that emerged was student attrition. While Grinnell’s graduation rates far exceed the national average, they are lower than those of some peer institutions—and to fulfill our academic mission, we would like an even higher number of entering students to thrive on campus and complete their college education at Grinnell. Identifying student retention as a top risk has led to several policy changes and new initiatives, including a creative project on community-building and social integration that recently received a 2015–2017 Category II Well-Being Research Grant from Bringing Theory to Practice.

To extend the benefits to other institutions, lessons learned from PREP have been published in University Business Magazine, Inside Higher Ed, and elsewhere. Drawing upon the work at Grinnell and similar programs at other liberal arts colleges, Engaging Risk: A Guide for College Leaders was published in 2015 by Rowman and Littlefield (Smith 2015b).

At many universities and colleges, risk management is delegated to the business office, where it can be handled in a way that resembles corporate risk management. But this approach may not do full justice to the special context of an academic mission.

In June 2015, when Inside Higher Ed ran an article on the expanding role of chief business officers, oversight of risk management was specifically mentioned (Ayers and Goldstein 2015). Advice for new business officers included the suggestion to learn about majors and programs—but it is even more important for those who handle risk management to understand shared governance and the academic mission.

Those with direct knowledge of the educational process—who understand what it means to advance learning and discovery, to foster student well-being and civic engagement—are in the best position to weigh the dangers to a college. It’s therefore crucial for leaders with academic experience, including elected officers of the faculty as well as provosts and deans, to take an active role when institutional risks are evaluated and addressed.



Ayers, Thomas, and Karen Goldstein. 2015. “Becoming a Renaissance CBO.” Inside Higher Ed, June 5, https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2015/06/05/chief-business-officers....

Smith, Paula Vene. 2015a. “Creating a Risk-Aware Campus.” University Business Magazine, March 2015. http://www.universitybusiness.com/article/creating-risk-aware-campus.

———. 2015b. Engaging Risk: A Guide for College Leaders. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield. https://rowman.com/ISBN/9781475818444/Engaging-Risk-A-Guide-for-College-....