You are here


Four Fearsome Risks--And How to Manage Them

Mitigating risks involving campus violence, bullying and harassment, the higher education bubble, and natural disasters
University Business, June 2011

Some of the scariest risks on campus remain hidden until the moment that students, teachers, and staff experience them. Until the shooter kills, the funding disappears, or the opposing party files the lawsuit, everything seems fine. Then, the overwhelming grief takes hold or the power to educate diminishes due to lack of resources. That's why, as campus leaders know, action must be taken before the risk occurs.

Four of the highest-profile risks affecting campuses today involve mental health and violence on campus; bullying and harassment; the higher education bubble; and natural disasters. But these risks can be mitigated. Here's what officials need to know.

Though the mentally ill are seldom violent, the risks of mental illness and campus violence are inextricably connected. "When looking through the histories of those who have committed acts of violence on campus, you won't find an individual without mental or emotional illness," says Suzanne Rhulen Loughlin, executive vice president of Firestorm Solutions, a crisis management firm. The risk of extreme violence such as campus shootings and/or other murders or suicides has increased over the last decade due in part to events such as the tragedies at Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois University, says Nowell Seaman, manager of risk management and insurance services for the University of Saskatchewan (Canada).

In the face of increasing risk over the four years since Virginia Tech, colleges, universities, and third-party experts have focused on identifying the early warning signs of mental issues and impending attacks, says J. Michael Bale, president of URMIA, the University Risk Management and Insurance Association. But the early signs of mental illness can be deceiving. "Sometimes unusual behavior means a student is tired or very stressed. At other times, it can signal a mental health problem," says Ruth Harper, a professor of counseling and human resource development at South Dakota State University.

The new regulations include accountability for cyber-bullying that happens off-campus and for bullying and harassment that the school reasonably should have known about.

A few of the many potential symptoms of mental disturbance include changes in appearance, declining hygiene, and poor academic behavior. "Other signs include incongruous affect (e.g., smiling while crying, laughing at inappropriate moments, etc.), or lack of boundaries (e.g., too much self-disclosure, too-frequent office visits with faculty or staff)," Harper explains.

At first sight of any of these symptoms, parents, peers, faculty, and staff should intervene by reporting their concerns to the college's crisis intervention resources, says Loughlin, adding that campuses tend to have either a single contact or a group of people with the function. Members of the campus community should be reminded of what 800 number to call and where to send a text message to relay any concerns quickly and anonymously. The college's crisis group can then intervene and refer the individual to a capable counselor when necessary. This will help the individual cope, and help prevent any one member of the campus population at large from growing so disturbed as to commit heinous acts.

Although years have passed since the tragedy at Virginia Tech, violence is still a very real threat to campuses, and administrators, staff, and students must be vigilant in recognizing and reporting signs of anyone who may have a mental disturbance.

Higher ed leaders must also recognize and act on the warning signs of impending aggression. The Center for Aggression Management, a firm offering training in aggression recognition and management skills, defines two types of aggression: primal and cognitive. Each carries its own warning signs in the form of body language and behavior. The signs of primal aggression are clear as the attacker demonstrates an obvious outward loss of control. Security and law enforcement are trained to handle the primal aggressor.

It is the cognitive aggressor, however, who typically becomes the mass murderer or the perpetrator of a murder/suicide, according to John Byrnes, founder of the Center for Aggression Management. This is the kind of perpetrator responsible for the killings that happen in minutes or seconds, sending the institution and the nation into panic. College constituents and security can recognize the cognitive aggressor through certain traits.

According to Byrnes, when anyone (regardless of culture, gender, age, education, or hierarchy in a community) is overcome with cognitive aggression--where they are prepared to give up their lives for their "cause"--their body language and behavior lose animation. "First, we see what the military calls the thousand-yard stare; but it is more than this, their whole body language and behavior lose animation. The Israelis call this look the 'walking dead,' " says Byrnes. An image of the facial expression appears on the Center for Aggression Management home page.

This aggressor comes to the scene of the eventual crime already wearing that look. The moment the aggressor makes a commitment to the task, that look can be seen--so there are multiple opportunities to identify the person before the act begins. At any point before that moment, an official can recognize and detain the aggressor and question him or her about the intent.

In October 2010, the Office of Civil Rights of the Department of Education published a Dear Colleague Letter addressing bullying and harassment. The letter includes several new requirements that could put colleges in noncompliance.

The new regulations include accountability for cyber-bullying that happens off-campus and for bullying and harassment that the school reasonably should have known about. The letter redefines harassment to include acts that are sufficiently severe, pervasive, or persistent and states that it does not have to include the intent to harm, be directed at a specific target, or consist of repeated incidents.

Further, the letter requires that schools see cyber-bullying and bullying as acts of harassment as defined by the OCR when they are associated with race, color, national origin, sex, or disability.

Cyber-bullying that happens off-campus is now something colleges and universities can be held accountable for, thanks to new federal regulations. The regs also mean bullying of any kind must be seen as harassment by institutions.

To address the new regulations, institutions can re-examine policies and procedures to ensure that they are adequate. According to Constance Neary, vice-president of risk management for United Educators, officials should continue to establish, publish, and enforce clear policies prohibiting all forms of unlawful harassment. They can also ensure clear mechanisms for reporting bullying and harassment are in place, conduct immediate investigations, and take action based on the findings of investigations to end harassment. This could include separating students by dormitory and class schedule.

Employee training on recognizing the behavior traits of those prone to bullying and harassment is also important and should be conducted at least annually, says Jean Demchak, the global education leader at Marsh, an insurance broker and risk management consulting firm. Bullying traits include modeling behavior of other bullies, isolation, oppression at home, and rule breaking.

In addition, officials should curtail cyber-bullying through acceptable use policies for cell phone and internet usage, says Demchak. Policies may cover, for example, forbidding use of the internet to promote discrimination based on race, gender, national origin, age, marital status, or disability, and how the university will monitor internet usage for inappropriateness and hold violators accountable.

The average college tuition and fees have skyrocketed as higher ed institutions have come to expect ever-increasing growth in much the same way that residential real estate did for more than a decade, says Bob Smith, a partner at the Boston office of LeClairRyan, which defends colleges and universities against legal claims. That expectation has lead to a phenomenal inflation in college pricing. "College tuition rose by 439 percent from 1982 to 2007," points out Patrick Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.

During the same period, from about 1980 to today, opportunities for employment that support the middle class standard of living without requiring a college education have been evaporating, Callan points out. These forces, together with the recession, have increased the demand for a college education, making higher education a seller's market. "Colleges can increase prices and students will still enroll, with two-thirds of high schoolers enrolling in some type of post-secondary education or training today," says Callan. And the taxpayers are bearing much of the financial burden.

Student debt, much of it in loans provided by the government, is picking up the tab. But government-funded grants and loans are not enabling students who cannot afford college to attend as was originally intended, but rather are enabling colleges to raise prices knowing the money is there to pay them. This, says Callan, is temporarily accommodating the rising price of higher education.

A change is likely on the horizon. "As the nation comes out of the economic downturn, people will be much more reluctant to take out loans," says Callan. With less money for college, students will trade down to less expensive schools. This could lower demand for the most exclusive schools. Within those higher-echelon institutions, the demand for majors that do not lead to jobs will decrease. Those departments may close at some schools.

To address these issues, colleges will have to learn to do more with less. They will have to stop spending extravagantly on things that do not determine the quality of the education. "A new 79,000-seat stadium on campus does not make the students better at the profession they are preparing for," says Smith.

Institutions have to pay more attention to cost-effectiveness, experts say, but there's a presumption that everything cost effective will also reduce the quality of the education. "There is not much evidence for that," says Callan.

Colleges and universities have expanded themselves to such a great extent while looking for new markets and customers, yet it is hard for them to be good at everything they are involved in.

"Institutions need to consider interactive technologies, which are better for reaching students than placing hundreds of pupils in an education hall for one class with one professor," Callan says. They need to consider year-round class schedules to take advantage of facilities, which have year-round expenses anyway. They need to leverage the university's technological inventions for greater profit.

"Administrators need to position their institutions within the bubble," says J. Michael Bale, director of the Oklahoma State University office of risk management. Colleges and universities have expanded themselves to such a great extent while looking for new markets and customers, yet it is hard for them to be good at everything they are involved in.

Bale believes institutions need to take an approach similar to the one used by leaders in the fast-food industry. "The fast-food industry is always looking at ways to expand, but they don't expand their offerings too far. They try new menu items and if these work, they go with it. Yet, they are brutally honest with themselves. When a product does not work, they ditch it and cut their losses. Higher education has difficulty cutting anything," says Bale. But they need to do it.

Mitigating Natural Disasters

Because of the recent earthquakes, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown in Japan, more than ever campus "administrators are asking themselves whether they have prepared sufficiently for natural disasters," says Seaman of the University of Saskatchewan.

Since Hurricane Katrina, Tulane officials have worked with the Federal Emergency Management Agency on the Disaster-Resistant University Initiative to improve the ability of campuses to withstand significant disaster threats.

He and other officials there are using a university-wide register to identify and manage enterprise-level risks the institution faces, including the risk of crises or disasters due to natural events or other causes. Deans, their leadership teams, senior administrators, and board members can suggest risks to add to the register. Officials then rate the risks based on their likelihood and severity and by tallying factors such as the potential financial losses and impact to reputation associated with each one. They then compare the risks and their ratings with each other, Seaman explains. "Risks that could have a strong effect on the achievement of strategic goals, could cause a university to cease to be, or could affect student and staff safety must be mitigated."

The strongest natural risk to his university is the weather. "We are subject to severe storms in winter and summer," Seaman says. The university has experienced flooding on a wide scale as a result of unprecedented rainfall. Preparatory measures included adequate contingency planning in the event of a disruption of services.

"We ask ourselves which critical operations we would need to protect in case flooding or other perils occur," says Seaman. Because the university has a large scientific research element that runs year-round on campus, he made sure any supporting operations were included on this list. These operations include a variety of infrastructure, safety systems, specialized equipment, maintenance of research materials, and plant and animal care.

To protect those operations, the university had to be ready with redundant power, utilities, and other services to replace any that could fail due to flooding. The institution and its officials have to be prepared to initiate steps as needed to preserve critical research and to safely shut the lab down, if necessary. These measures are part of the institution's crisis and emergency preparedness program, which coordinates its response while supporting the research and other units in the event of a major disruption, Seaman explains.

Your Role in Risk Management

Mitigating the major risks to any college or university should not just be of concern to those in risk management roles on campuses. Whatever your role, consider what you might do to help in thinking and planning ahead.

David Geer is an Ohio-based technology journalist who also covers risk. His Twitter handle is @geercom.