Transcript

Forecasting Risks for the 2022-23 Academic Year

Host: Hello, and welcome to Prevention and Protection, the United Educators Risk Management podcast. Today’s episode will feature Sam Swartout, Manager of Risk Consulting at UE, asking Justin Kollinger, Senior Risk Management Consultant, about emerging risks we’re forecasting for this year. Before we begin, a quick reminder that you can find other episodes of Prevention and Protection, as well as additional risk management resources, on our website, ue.org. This and all other episodes of Prevention and Protection are also available on Apple Music. Now, here’s Sam. 

Sam Swartout: Justin, thank you for joining me today to discuss some emerging risks we are forecasting for the remainder of 2022. When I mention emerging risks, what is the No. 1 risk on your mind? 

Justin Kollinger: Thanks for having me, Sam. We can’t talk about my No. 1 risk as emerging anymore. It’s been emerging for a long time, and now it’s here in full force, and that’s student mental health. I can think back to the last NACUBO meeting that I went to in person before the pandemic back in 2019. There was a panel of experienced CBOs, who were answering questions for up-and-coming CBOs about the career path. One of the questions that was asked was, “What still keeps you up at night after 20 years in the profession?” And the Chief Business Officer laughed, and he said, “Nothing keeps me up at night anymore.” And then he paused and said, “Actually, there’s one thing that still keeps me up, and that’s student mental health.” And I think we see that reflected in a whole bunch of other sources. 

For instance, the Inside Higher Ed executive surveys of different leaders on campus continue to cite student mental health as the No. 1 concern. The National Association of Independent Schools, in their annual trendbook this year, they dedicate a whole chapter to it. I talk to student affairs staff, and it’s one of the first things they bring up. And so, it’s just not emerging anymore, it’s here. And I don’t need to expound upon why this is important for well-being and academic success. I think that’s pretty clear and obvious at this point. But there’s something that I found interesting about our top risk survey that we run every year: although seemingly every leadership position on campus thinks student mental health is the biggest challenge, when we asked our risk managers what their top risks were, it didn’t land in the top 10 for either higher ed or K-12. And I think you can start to wonder and hypothesize, “Is this just an expertise issue, where risk managers are not going to be the people intervening in any given instance or any specific student mental health crisis?” 

But even if that’s the case, there’s space here for risk managers to get engaged in this topic. While the treatment, like I said, is typically beyond the scope of a risk manager’s work, this is a population level issue. And this is where I think risk managers can have an impact. I mean, consider the role of return to study policies, training for students and staff, the implementation of early alert reporting systems, communications, student and staff development. The list goes on of these areas where risk managers can be impactful and relate that experience over to helping overcome student mental health crises on campus. 

Swartout: Well, seeing that this is a risk that’s already emerged, is there anything a risk manager can do to make an immediate impact on reducing student mental health? 

Kollinger: It’s a good question, but unfortunately, I don’t know that there’s a lot that we’re going to see at the population level in terms of short-term improvement this year. And I think a lot of that comes down to its causes. This is a frightening world that we’re living in, and the pandemic has worn down a lot of the resilience that families and students have. But there are places, I think, we can start to have an impact that will grow over time. And that’s by looking at the areas where we can see pretty acute issues that are driving student mental health. And so you might look at things like weaker social skills and the isolation that students have been experiencing during the pandemic. We can look at what are perceived to be overwhelming academic obligations, in some cases. We can look at the role that technology plays in harming students’ mental health. 

There are things that I’d like to see start to happen to target those areas where I think that there is a little bit more room to have a long-term impact. I’d like to see the reinvigoration of care or wellness teams. These are the cross-departmental teams on campus that respond to student crises. I know I mentioned tech as a downside, as a driver of negative student mental health, but there are now more and more apps and technologies available to help improve student mental health. And I’ve seen a few of them that are particularly interesting that can help be part of the positive side of change. It’s, of course, always worthwhile to go back and review student mental health policies and practices, particularly as they relate to returning to study and enabling study while a student is going through a mental health crisis. 

And I think that if we’re really going to get to the bottom of this, for some students, I think we need to start to think about resolving some of the contradictions and the knots in academic requirements and scheduling. They might be able to pull back on some of this all-or-nothing pressure that some students feel that they have. It’s probably also worth remembering here that our K-12 members will be some of the first to see how student mental health develops, and so higher ed needs to stay connected to their K-12 partners to be able to prepare for what’s coming next.  

Swartout: That’s a really great point. Now, going back to my original question, when I asked about emerging risks. Is there any risk adjacent to student mental health that institutions should be looking out for? 

Kollinger: That’s a fair question. You did ask about emerging risk, and I gave you something that I said was already here. I suggest that we start to watch for risks related to employees’ mental health. The stressors that we’re seeing affect students are not just limited to them. And to the National Association of Independent Schools’ credit, in their trendbook, they actually make that connection about their teachers and teachers’ mental health starting to slip and schools needing to be active to get ahead of that trend. So, I would encourage all institutions to start thinking about the indicators that they can follow to watch their employees’ mental health. Because as that mental health starts to slip, you could start to see operational lapses or other damages emerge. 

Swartout: I really like that you brought up that point. We often talk about student mental health. And as you point out, stressors are not limited to students. So, thinking of risks that didn’t land in our top 10 list last year, I was surprised to not see discrimination or harassment on the list. Were you surprised by this as well? 

Kollinger: Yeah — shocked, in fact. There were three employment risks that survey respondents typically cite. The first is related to hiring and retaining a talented workforce. The second was the risk of workplace discrimination or harassment. And the third was the risk of what you might consider a generalized employee misconduct. The only one of those three, Sam, that were able to break into the top 10 was the risk of generalized employee misconduct. And in that case, it was only for our K-12 schools. And don’t get me wrong, employee misconduct is serious. But it could be the least critical of those three. Look, it’s not bold to say that education has an employment problem. Practically everybody listening to this is going to be able to think of some position on campus that they just can’t seem to recruit for, or if they get somebody they’re struggling to retain. And there are some real structural issues here. 

I won’t be exhaustive, but inflation is pushing up non-education salaries, while education funding lags, making it relatively harder to compete. Educators often have in-person roles, while remote work is looking increasingly positive and attractive. And there’s more and more public scrutiny of education and educators, causing kind of a storm of criticism that frontline staff are starting to deal with. All of this is starting to feed into a vicious cycle where there just aren’t easy answers to overcome these hiring and retention challenges. One of the common ones I hear of is to outsource functions to third-party service providers. But from a risk perspective, that’s just replacing employment risks for partnership risks, and that might make some sense. But I think we have to make a point to recognize that this is a tradeoff, where there are two sets of competing risks. 

Swartout: Sounds like we may need to do a future episode on partnership risks. What about discrimination? 

Kollinger: Harassment and discrimination are problems in our workforce. It’s not limited to education, but we’re not powerless here either. I won’t get too theoretical about the nature of organizational culture and its codification and policy and procedure, but we need to think of these two things as related. The challenge, though, is that culture often moves at, say 100 miles an hour, while policies and procedures are stuck at 25. Think about the last five years. We have seen such massive shifts in culture — and particularly about the expectations of inclusive and collegial behavior. But our policies, and I think some leaders who ought to be modeling that inclusive behavior, are still catching up to that change. So, ask yourself about your own institution. How can we speed up that policy, that procedure, and that training to catch up to and reflect the culture and very crucially, bring everybody along? 

Sticking with that speed limit metaphor, even going from 25 to 35 would be such a big achievement. It’s hard to be specific about what changes any given institution can make just because every culture is so different. But areas where I think we can be successful, include modern training that goes beyond just compliance and starts to really strive towards behavior change through things like bystander intervention, make a brief plug here for one of UE resources. We have a higher ed bystander intervention training that is included in the membership. And I think it does a really good job of hitting that sweet spot between relatable, authentic, impactful and, I think importantly, short. Some other areas where I think we can be successful: transparent and consistent performance review practices and procedures for having difficult conversations. And these are difficult conversations that leaders need to be able to model as well. Now, all of that taken into consideration, like many things in risk management, it’s really hard to draw that straight line from a healthy workplace culture to fewer incidents of harassment and discrimination. But we do have some levers here and we need to be pulling them. 

Swartout: Let’s change subjects here. So, we saw a return to travel in the United States near the end of last year, and expect this trend to continue with students more this year. With institutions looking to reestablish their domestic and foreign travel learning programs, what risks should they be paying attention to? 

Kollinger: I actually feel pretty good about the risk of COVID outbreaks while traveling, though those are certainly still possible. But as mundane as it might sound, I think we need to ask whether we’ve forgotten all of the usual international and domestic travel risk management. Since early in the pandemic, back in 2020, when all travel was halted, I’ve been urging members to revisit their study abroad practices. No better time, right, to make changes than when it’s all stopped. Some members did. I worked with an independent school. I worked with a liberal arts college that rebuilt their study abroad risk management from scratch. I like to think of processes like these as muscles. If we don’t use our study abroad risk management processes, or, I think as people turn over, as has been the case, those processes get weaker.  

I’m personally prepared to see the usual study abroad incidents that we would have seen before the pandemic. And I’m hoping we don’t drop the ball on good hygiene risk management practices that we’ve come to expect. Things like waivers and contracting, managing transportation and vehicle crashes abroad, off-itinerary activities, sexual misconduct prevention, crisis communications. I would also pay particular attention to substance misuse and abuse during study abroad. It’s true of college students, but we can’t forget high school students here as well. During the pandemic, students just had very different experiences in education around substances. We cannot assume a baseline level of familiarity before sending students off into the world. Particularly, away from the U.S., in areas with more permissive or more available drug cultures. There can be situations where students might misuse or abuse substances more readily and with fewer opportunities to intervene. So, I would consider how do screening and training and even just checking in with students; how can that help manage substance misuse and abuse. And hopefully avoid some of its often tragic outcomes. 

Swartout: Let’s move on and talk about diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). Investments in advancing DEI was common practice for institutions last year, including a focus on anti-racism and promoting racial justice at all levels. What new challenges might an institution see relating to mitigating DEI risks in this coming year? 

Kollinger: I feel mixed about DEI and education this year. In many ways, we’ve made just mountains of progress in making our institutions more equitable in just the last few years. And it’s really, really, important that we recognize that, but we still have a way to go, of course. There’s a ton here to watch.  

I’m going to share two of the main things that I’m looking for and I’m hoping we can avoid this year. The first is a societal backlash to DEI efforts. I think we’ve started to see some of that. And a lot of experts and reporters have gone into just incredible amounts of detail about the causes and effects that affect day-to-day life on campus. But what really concerns me are the extremists. Unfortunately, we’ve seen, particularly at HBCUs and for Black scholars in particular, there have been numerous bomb threats and death threats to start the year. 

I’m really hoping that this level of threat doesn’t persist, but honestly I’m not optimistic. And I don’t think it’s just HBCUs that are going to experience these threats of hate crimes. It’s a trend that could spread to other affinity groups and could target groups at any campus or at any organization.  

Similarly, but slightly differently, the second area I’m watching in 2022 is xenophobia. And it’s something I’m hoping that doesn’t become a trend. This isn’t a brand-new concern. It’s something we’ve managed for years, but it seems to be growing since the start of the pandemic. Unstable economies and geopolitics around the world are threatening to push society to be more fearful and more hateful towards people seen as outsiders. And, of course, we don’t see our students as outsiders — they’re members of our community, but we’re not in complete control here. 

Swartout: Trying to mitigate xenophobia sounds like such an arduous task for an institution to tackle. Can they actually take steps to make a difference here? 

Kollinger: I think it’s natural in a way to feel powerless to affect these trends. For the most part, they do come from outside the campus, but we’re not totally powerless and we can act and we need to act. We can prepare to respond to vandalism, hate crimes, and threats. And in fact, many or even most of us already are. But it’s worth redoubling those efforts and bringing more and more campus stakeholders in. We also need to take active steps with our students, alumni, parents, and other stakeholders, particularly those from underrepresented groups, to make sure that they know and that they can see and feel that they’re integral parts of our communities. 

Swartout: Now, changing gears a little bit here and not talking about emerging risks, but talking about some common risks that may not be new but are still worth a mention. What risk would you bring up here? 

Kollinger: It’s a good question, Sam. And I know that this isn’t exciting, but slips, trips, and falls aren’t going anywhere. You could even generalize that to accidents on campus. I mean, it doesn’t take much for someone to trip, Sam. I think you’re fond of saying that it only takes three-eighths of an inch difference in surfaces for someone to trip. 

Swartout: It’s only my favorite stat to share. 

Kollinger: Injuries, they’re not immune from that general trend of increasing settlement and award costs that we’ve seen. Since these are relatively high likelihood events, they are worth continued attention. On the plus side, I have seen some pretty cool things in slip and fall prevention lately. Increasingly, I’m hearing of campuses printing out literally a large map of the premises and pinpointing spots for remediation, with different symbols for actual incidents, active hazards, and remedied hazards. I love the visual aspect of this. People are going to get hurt on campus, but the visual display identifies patterns and helps to direct resources in a smart way.  

There are also tech tools and systems that enable these kinds of interventions. I know some of our larger members at UE have adopted them. If you’re looking to improve how your campus manages the safety of the physical premises, one of these tools can be a really good addition. 

Swartout: As always, institutions certainly have a lot to consider when it comes to managing risks for the remainder of 2022. Any final thoughts you want to share, Justin? 

Kollinger: I’ve been thinking about administrative structures lately. Once we knew the pandemic was going to be a very long-term disruption, I started to say that we had better not get to the end of this and then just go back to normal. There was too much time and too much freedom to reimagine how we could achieve our educational missions to just revert to the way we did things in 2019. I just read Inside Higher Ed’s 2022 Survey of College [and University] Presidents. And one of the questions was something like, do you agree that your college’s pandemic response opened the door to other changes that needed to be made? And some two-thirds of presidents agreed. That aligns with my experience. It doesn’t seem to matter who I talked to in higher ed or in K-12. Everyone just keeps saying that there are so many initiatives right now, and that’s great. 

Swartout: I mean, that’s really interesting, but I’m kind of struggling to see how this innovation ties back into risk management. 

Kollinger: Well, new strategies and initiatives also mean the introduction of more uncertainty or in other words, more risk. That’s good, in many ways. You simply can’t innovate without risk and uncertainty. Consider some of the new initiatives that I’ve heard about just in the last couple of weeks from UE members. I’ve heard about the expansion of non-academic programs for minors, the development of new online courses, both for credit and not for credit. I talked to a school that was acquiring land in the mountains for a STEM-focused campus. And it’s not always exciting, but even the restructuring of back-office functions.  

And these are great, I love to see these kinds of innovations. But they all introduce liability risks to say nothing of financial and strategic risks. Without the appropriate administrative support, who is there to press pause when new staff or volunteers are working with minors? Who is making sure that contracts protect the institution? How are we maintaining compliance at all levels from regulatory requirements just to ethical behavior and so on? 

We have to get that balance right between agility and administrative support. I’m worried that some are providing almost no administrative support, either due to oversight or simply because people are stretched too thin. I mean, I’ve personally been there before. I have seen it before. Good people can be doing good work and yet make bad errors when they just don’t have the appropriate resources and support. Let me use a metaphor here. Think about your initiatives as a car ride. Listeners and risk managers do not stop that car from leaving the driveway. Let these initiatives hit the road, but demand to be a passenger. Don’t let them go along without your support. And while you’re on the road, make sure all of your colleagues have their seat belts on, that the driver takes their occasional breaks, and that you pull over when that tire pressure light comes on. 

Swartout: Thanks for talking with me today, Justin. 

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 www.ue.org.