Emerging Risks in 2024

Host: Hello, and welcome to Prevention and Protection, United Educators’ risk management podcast. Today, Beth Kidwell, UE Risk Management Consultant, will be joined by Justin Kollinger, UE Senior Risk Management Consultant. Beth and Justin will discuss emerging risks for 2024. 

Before we begin, a quick reminder that you can find other episodes of Prevention and Protection, as well as risk management resources, on our website, This, and all podcast episodes, are also available on Apple Podcast and Spotify. Now, here’s Beth. 

Beth Kidwell: Hi, Justin. Thank you for joining me today to discuss your thoughts on emerging risks for 2024. I look forward to hearing your insights, as we first look back to 2023, discuss what might be ahead in 2024, and then consider what could be on a distant horizon, say in five years or so. Let’s get started by briefly reflecting on last year, as 2023 was certainly an active year. 

UE recently published our 2023 Top Risks Report, which is a compilation of survey results where we ask our members to share what they believe are their most pressing risks. While we largely saw very little change in the survey results from the 2022 report to the 2023 report, for both [independent] K-12 and higher ed institutions, that doesn’t mean the landscape was completely stagnant. Did we see any new risks emerge over the past year? 

Justin Kollinger: Thanks for having me, Beth. I’m glad you started with the recent past, because I think to look ahead, you have to look back first. I see a few ways that risks evolved in the last year. Let me give you three. 

I see 2023 as the year that abuse, specifically hazing and athlete abuse, became a prominent liability issue. I won’t rehash all the well-publicized stories here, but students are now speaking out about the inappropriate behaviors that have been happening for a long time. That has an impact on liability. For me, those incidents reached a tipping point — and now institutions know that they need to do more. The thing is, I’m not sure that they have yet, unless they suffered a death, or dealt with a major lawsuit, or are in a state where regulation is forcing change. For example, I haven’t seen many institutions with new, campus-wide hazing prevention practices that collaborate across fraternity and sorority life, athletics, and student life. 

AI is my second risk that emerged in the last year. AI, of course, has been with us in some form for a long time. ChatGPT was actually released back in 2022. But 2023 was the year where we really had to do something about it. So far, I think institutions have seen AI as a strategic risk. They’re asking questions like, “How does AI affect instruction and learning? And how does AI affect student academic behavior?” From a strategic perspective, this risk is still evolving, and I hope no institution feels like they’ve conclusively solved it. 

Finally, freedom of expression, especially but not exclusively related to the Israel-Hamas war. The war is amplifying what is already an incredibly difficult balance between the need to protect students from discrimination and harm, while also fostering freedom of expression. Practically every person, and of course every government, draws the line between those two things differently. It’s up to leadership to delicately balance those goals while also communicating it to very passionate stakeholders. 

Kidwell: Were there any surprises? Risks that emerged that you didn’t anticipate for 2023? 

Kollinger: My surprise is a risk that didn’t dramatically worsen in the last year and that’s the economy. Yes, there are still headwinds, inflation is still high, the labor market is still tight. But a recession doesn’t seem like it has happened, and consumers, which, of course, are our students and families, are still spending. 

That said, credit markets have tightened, labor costs are up, and people are wary of long-term investments. There is still plenty of uncertainty for this year and that could impact everything from enrollment to endowment to debt. 

Kidwell: That sounds like a good segue to turn our focus to 2024 and discuss what the last year could mean for emerging risks this year. Most emerging risks make sense in hindsight, when we can look back and see the seeds of the risk more clearly. Are there any risks from 2023 that perhaps didn’t fully emerge, but the seeds were planted and now we should anticipate addressing those risks in 2024? 

Kollinger: If we think freedom of expression is fraught now, it’s only going to heat up as we get deeper into the election season. I won’t belabor the point, but from a risk management perspective, I encourage all institutions, even K-12 schools, public and private, to prepare for demonstrations on campus. Run your tabletop scenarios, consider planning communications for the kinds of incidents that might occur. Even though you’ll never predict the exact details of an incident, practicing will help everyone prepare to manage whatever situation actually emerges. 

In addition to UE’s resources, this is one where it’s pretty easy to find scenarios to tabletop. Look at the demonstrations and incidents that are happening on your peer campuses and ask, “What if that kind of incident happened here, and how would we respond?” 

Kidwell: That is such a great recommendation, Justin. I know from my time as a risk manager at a university, it was really difficult to convince leadership to dedicate the time necessary to completely tabletop exercises and crisis planning. But you learn so much from that experience and you put your institution in a much better position to handle those incidents. 

So, besides freedom of expression, what else should we take from 2023 into 2024? 

Kollinger: I’m also going to look back at abuse and AI for a window into 2024 and beyond. When I look at students’ increased willingness to report abusive behaviors like hazing and coach abuse, I see a connection to their increased willingness to report other kinds of safety issues. We’ve been coaching kids to “see something, say something,” for a couple of decades now. We’ve seen an increase in the number of reports about sexual misconduct and campus safety hazards.  

Kidwell: Unfortunately, it is rare for a day to go by without hearing news of a report of sexual misconduct or a significant safety issue. Are there other abusive behaviors, or maybe safety issues, you anticipate students will report, that we might see turn into a claim more frequently? 

Kollinger: Yeah, that’s exactly the next question. We have this evidence that culture around reporting has changed. What’s next? I look at faculty behavior towards students as an underexplored area of risk. Faculty have frequent interactions with students and there’s a power imbalance, and those are common factors in misconduct. 

I can give you an example here. I heard from one college about a student who reported a faculty member for taking pictures of class. The institution didn’t exactly know what to do with that report. It was the first report made about that faculty member, and the faculty member didn’t violate any policies. But at the same time, the institution could see how a student might find that situation inappropriate. 

I encourage listeners to prepare for this kind of situation. We’ve always talked about boundary training in the context of adults to minors, but it might not hurt to start thinking about that same concept for adult faculty and their adult students. Some institutions do touch on this in their consensual relationship policies, but it might need to go a little bit farther. 

Kidwell: In addition to abuse, you mentioned artificial intelligence, or AI, a couple of minutes ago, as a risk to watch going into 2024. I found that interesting that you mentioned those two together. Is there a connection between those two risks? 

Kollinger: Yeah. This is where it starts to get scary to me, Beth. Last year, the focus on AI centered on the classroom. But the more important question might end up being, “What does AI mean operationally, and how might people use AI outside of the classroom?” 

I talked to one UE member who was already connecting the dots between abuse and AI. They fear AI’s use in hazing and bullying. They foresee groups of students, or even perhaps a disgruntled employee, using AI to generate an overwhelming volume of abusive content directed at a student or a colleague. It might even include things like AI-generated video or audio of the targeted person in humiliating conditions. 

Decentralized administrative models also pose AI risks. Business units might start to adopt AI without really understanding its limitations, causing errors in processes that harm people. Or there could be compliance risks even, from using AI inappropriately. Most of us know that AI can discriminate, it can reveal sensitive information, and it can invent falsehoods. But I don’t think most of us know how to mitigate those possibilities. Then of course, on the other hand, there’s the risk of not adopting AI and reducing your competitiveness against other institutions. 

I am pretty confident that institutions will broadly figure out the academic implications of AI. I am much less confident that we will successfully navigate those operational implications. 

Kidwell: OK. Now I’m scared too, Justin. You’re saying that AI could add another layer of risk to risks institutions are already trying to manage and mitigate. We know that technology will only continue to rapidly advance and change, which means institutions have to find ways to successfully manage this powerful technology. 

Kollinger: Yeah, I think that’s right. Fortunately, you might find AI expertise in unanticipated places on campus. It’s not always the technologists who know about a technology. You might have students, or other faculty or administrators who can contribute to managing AI risks. 

Kidwell: I mentioned UE’s Top Risk Report at the beginning of our conversation. I’d like to touch on one of the risks included in that report. We see that employment risks are still a major concern for both our K-12 and higher ed members. Specifically, recruitment and hiring, which we define as “risks related to retaining and hiring a talented staff and faculty workforce.” Recruitment and hiring ranked second among our K-12 members and third among our higher ed members. What’s the significance of that risk still being top-of-mind as we talk about emerging risks for 2024? 

Kollinger: I want to start by unpacking that definition, because it covers a few risks that each call for their own separate treatment. 

The first risk covered in that definition is pretty obvious. It’s gotten harder to hire and retain talented people. But I can put a numerical example to this challenge. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, there were about 89,000 new graduates with education degrees in 2021. There were also about 115,000 schools in the United States, which works out to less than one new teacher per school per year. Now, the independent schools in UE’s membership may have an advantage by being able to hire from less conventional backgrounds. But it does go to show how difficult it is to hire, for many schools. 

The second risk in that definition is social pressure on school employees, especially faculty and senior leadership. Curriculum has become a flashpoint. Politicians are inflaming issues and finances are tight. 

Third is employee mental health. Educators are not immune from the national mental health crisis. In fact, they might actually be more prone to it because of the social pressures that I just mentioned. According to Gallup, K-12 workers have the highest rate of burnout of any industry in the U.S., and higher ed is in second place. 

Those were the direct impacts. I also think there are indirect impacts on other risks. For instance, being short-staffed means that work isn’t getting done. That could be because of operational shortcuts, or simply lack of capacity. These issues are often concentrated in certain departments, like Facilities or IT. 

Kidwell: Wow. There are certainly a lot of components to employment risk. It’s no surprise, then, that this risk category is still top-of-mind for our member institutions. Anything else surrounding employment risk you want to mention? 

Kollinger: There’s another, perhaps under-discussed side, to employment risks that we’re seeing a lot of in the news. So much so, that Inside Higher Ed now has its own regular column, and that’s financial pressures that lead to a reduction in force. I hope institutions are doing these in a smart way, but I know sometimes these decisions have to be made relatively quickly. I wish we saw more members reviewing our resources on reductions in force. I would say, if a listener is even thinking that there’s a remote possibility of a reduction in force at their institution in the next year or two, I would encourage them to download our checklist. We can make sure that we link to that in the show notes. 

Kidwell: In addition to the reductions in force, I think the struggle to manage financial pressures is also leading to innovative ideas like new partnerships, new consortiums, new business models — which then lead to questions about liability and insurance coverage for these new entities. Plus, we haven’t even talked about how regulations and domestic politics, which is another frequent response in UE’s Top Risks Report, are impacting institutions. Let’s turn our attention there.  

Kollinger: It’s such a tangled web, and institutions are going to struggle with what to do. Again, I like to look to the past for reflections on the future. This increase in federal involvement in higher ed is in no way unprecedented. We’ve seen rapid increases in federal activity going all the way back to the Morrill Acts, and then through the GI Bill, and of course government-funded research, civil rights era, all the way up to today. 

But I think there’s also a difference between that past and this future. Most of those instances in the past were built on trust that higher education and K-12 education would do the right thing. Today, that trust is weaker. Just in 2024, you could see political or regulatory involvement in all levels of education. I’m going to list off a few areas here where you might see it. You’ll see new Title IX regulations. Election politicking, all the way down from school boards up to the presidency. The Israel-Hamas war will, of course, have an impact on campus. The increased regulation of online program managers. We’ll have implications still rolling out from the affirmative action ruling. Probably more congressional and state hearings, which could also result in things like increased gainful employment regulations or other accountability measures on institutions. 

Kidwell: That was quite a list of topics where institutions could see a new or additional political and regulatory involvement. But I’d like to talk a bit more about the state or congressional hearings, since a somewhat recent event is probably still pretty fresh in our minds. Can you elaborate on the relationship between state or congressional hearings and the potential liability claims for an institution? 

Kollinger: I think it’s two-sided. There’s a direct impact from these hearings and an indirect impact related to reputation. 

On the direct side of things, these were hearings about discrimination. Since the Oct. 7 invasion of Israel, the Department of Education has opened more than 40 investigations under Title VI on shared ancestry against public schools, charter schools, and public and private colleges and universities. And that’s as of this recording. At least some of those will probably lead to liability claims. 

Indirectly, these hearings did at least two things. They inflamed passions on campus, which have led to demonstrations and accusations, and they damaged universities’ reputations as a whole. As we’ve seen with social inflation over the last few years, erosion of trust and reputation can affect liability outcomes. If there are more hearings at the federal or state level, I might expect more of the same. 

Kidwell: I’d say 2024 has the potential to be very active. Now, I’d like to ask you to look even further ahead than 2024. We’ve talked throughout our conversation, how it’s important to look back before you look ahead, and how you can often see the origin of risks in retrospect. We’ve talked about what you saw in 2023 that institutions should carry forward into 2024. Now, let’s see if we can look even further ahead and talk about what seeds you see right now that might blossom in the future, say five, six, even seven years from now. What comes to mind when we consider further out in the future? 

Kollinger: I’ll start with higher ed athletics. I see a bit of a storm brewing, all the way up from major DI football and men’s basketball, all the way down to the smaller divisions and associations. At the top, with the increased focus on revenue, which we’re seeing through the conference realignments and the massive TV deals, advertising partnerships, all of that growth holds risk for the largest programs, of course. But it will also stress those smaller DI programs, that only have a fraction of the resources, as they’re trying to keep up. 

Of course, name, image and likeness has taken hold across all levels of higher ed athletics. Without regulation, there are surely practices that will eventually be found to be illegal, but we don’t know what they are or when they’ll be defined yet. Name, image, likeness might also have a complex relationship with Title IX, too. 

For smaller institutions, we’re seeing increased reliance on athletics as an enrollment tool. Some of those institutions’ new student-athletes haven’t been academically or socially prepared for college, and they need additional support. 

I think you can play out different scenarios on exactly what’s going to happen in athletics one, five, 10 years from now, and I can’t say with any confidence which of those scenarios are going to come true. But I do feel confident that athletics is going to continue to evolve and change, creating risk. 

Kidwell: Right now, I’m just thinking about institutions possibly seeing an increase in student-athlete mental health risks, maybe even physical health risks. The demand and pressure of the student-athletes to always perform at the top of their sport will only continue to increase, not to mention the toll from the excessive travel schedules, as those athletes compete across the country due to the conference realignments you mentioned earlier. 

Kollinger: Yeah, I think that’s a great point. I sense a desire to see athletics as a solution for a lot of different problems. But when something is seen as a panacea, we often will overlook some of the ethical questions that can lead to real problems down the line. If you’re going to increasingly rely on athletics, remember that your athletes need support too. 

Kidwell: Since we touched on student-athlete mental health here, what about student mental health in general? Why haven’t you mentioned student mental health yet? 

Kollinger: I’d say it’s already emerged. We know student mental health is a problem, and we’ve seen massive investments at institutions of all kinds and sizes, and we’ll continue to battle it. 

I will mention one part of student mental health that I’ve only seen small amounts of discussion on, and that’s gambling. There are obvious risks to students’ well-being and finances with gambling. I also wonder what happens if students and families affected by gambling addictions start to ask whether schools enabled or simply didn’t do enough to stop students from developing gambling addictions. 

Kidwell: We know there simply aren’t enough counselors out there to manage the student mental health issues and addictions. Are there innovative mitigation strategies that are emerging, or maybe some new programs that you’ve heard about, that institutions should also consider? 

Kollinger: Yeah, that’s a good point. The lack of counselors has really forced institutions to innovate. We’ve seen organizations like The Jed Foundation help institutions evaluate mental health, from the campus climate, to training, to support systems and more. Others have adopted apps for mental health, including building social skills, in an attempt to bring scale to supporting mental health. 

I think one innovation, if you will, is collaborating across different levels of institution. Student mental health, and hazing for that matter, which we mentioned earlier, often start young. I know a few risk managers that are in regular contact with their counterparts across the K-12 and higher ed pipeline. I think there’s a lot for colleges to learn from schools, and vice versa. They might even be able to collaborate on resources and programs to address these risks that aren’t really confined to a single institution. 

Kidwell: Any other risk topics that are on your mind that we should be watching, and preparing for, beyond 2024? 

Kollinger: Climate change is certainly a big one. I’m sure every listener’s Facilities team has been thinking about climate change. They’re the ones who are dealing with a lot of the deferred maintenance issues, while also trying to implement more costly climate adaptations. But climate change mitigation extends beyond facilities. Student Affairs, and especially Athletics, should be thinking about safety as it gets hotter. HR might also need to think about how to keep employees safe and happy at work. Climate change could even impact study abroad programming, or academic research, or which degree programs that you’re offering are still relevant. 

I will add one climate risk that I haven’t heard as much about. If your institution maintains natural spaces, like forests, or waterways, or meadows, you might need to start thinking about the kinds of life in those places. Consider studies of what your natural spaces will be like in a climate impacted future, in addition to the environment today. 

Kidwell: Well, Justin, we’ve certainly discussed a wide range of risk topics during our conversation today. I’m afraid our listeners may be feeling just a little overwhelmed at all they currently have to manage or mitigate, as well as what may be coming in the future. As we wrap up, can you give our listeners advice on how to think about their institutions’ emerging or future risks? 

Kollinger: Yeah. When I’m trying to prepare a UE member, or even myself for the future, I look to current and past conditions. I set assumptions about those trends, and then I project them five to 10 years into the future, and I consider how people will react and how I could react. 

Let me use a speculative example here. It’s one that’s been on my mind lately, and that’s student privacy and data capture with cameras, microphones, and other sensors. Looking to the past and to today, I look at how rapidly those sensors and other recording devices have just become a norm. If you’re a child, data capture is normal. You might not think anything of a doorbell camera in a dorm or using a phone to record audio, or even just having a smart home assistant in the room. 

Now, play that trend forward. How is your campus going to handle a dispute between students or employees, where one recorded another and then those recordings were released? What happens if that data is modified with AI to create images, or video, or audio? What about when a majority of students or parents want door cameras, but a policy forbids them? Or maybe they’re just not even practical. What if there’s a new sensor technology that becomes cheaply available and people can use it to track each other’s movements without consent? Questions like these aren’t exactly fantasies. They’re scenarios grounded in today’s conditions and past trends. But we can use those to help us see what is emerging and prepare for it. 

Kidwell: Well, thank you so much for talking with me today, Justin, about emerging risks for this year. You’ve given us a lot to consider, and plan for, as we move forward in 2024. 

Kollinger: Thank you. 

Host: From United Educators insurance, this is the Prevention and Protection Podcast. For additional episodes and other risk management resources, please visit our website at 


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