Why ERM Is More Important Than Ever During or After a Global Pandemic

Host: Hello, and welcome to Prevention and Protection, the United Educators risk management podcast. Today’s guests are Justin Kollinger and Liza Kabanova, Risk Management Consultants at United Educators. They will discuss using enterprise risk management, or ERM, to think strategically during and after a global pandemic – and the new and emerging risks we’re seeing as a result of this global health crisis. Liza and Justin co-author UE’s resources about ERM, including the second edition of An Accountability Guide for University and College Boards, published by the Association of Governing Boards, which discusses the risk landscape in education today.

Hosting the discussion is UE colleague and fellow Risk Management Consultant, Sam Swartout. 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, For more resources related to COVID-19, please visit This, and all other episodes of Prevention and Protection, are also available on iTunes. Now, here’s Sam.

Sam Swartout: Liza and Justin, thank you for joining me today to discuss what we’re learning about risk management and this more holistic process called enterprise risk management, or ERM. I know you spent last year interviewing leaders in education about ERM and worked closely with the Association of Governing Boards to update the book on ERM. In addition, you also work closely with leaders at K-12 schools, colleges, and universities to facilitate on-campus ERM workshops that assist leaders with starting or refreshing ERM programs. Liza, for someone who’s not familiar, could you share a brief summary of what enterprise risk management is?

Liza Kabanova: Sure, Sam, I’m happy to share a little bit more. Enterprise risk management is a holistic process that helps institutions identify, prioritize, manage, and report on risks in an institutional setting. Now that sounds like a lot, but essentially leaders use ERM to think more proactively about new and emerging risks. And the focus is on risks that can affect the entire campus and how leaders can collaborate using a cross-functional approach. Often, a committee of senior administrators work together to identify common risks and select specific risks that the campus will tackle that year. And then the ERM committee is responsible for seeing risk management efforts through and reporting to senior administrators and the board.

Swartout: It sounds like the real value of ERM is that it requires cross-functional efforts and is particularly valuable for managing complex risks that cannot be solved by just one leader or department. Do you have any examples of this?

Kabanova: Absolutely, Sam. One particular example today is student mental health. As you know, that’s a risk that institutions cannot manage in silos. It’s a risk that affects student life on campus, their classroom performance and academics, their relationships with other students, and really any aspect of a student’s time on campus. Unfortunately, we still see some leaders assume that student counseling has got this. That they’re alone in being responsible to help students manage stress or succeed academically. But in fact, schools that get creative about coordinating efforts are in a much better position to help students and really get to the root cause.

Swartout: OK. That example is really helpful in understanding this holistic approach I hear people talk about when discussing ERM. Obviously, the COVID-19 pandemic is a top-of-mind issue everyone is dealing with. And I’m curious, Justin, did you ever anticipate the scope of a risk like the pandemic?

Justin Kollinger: Well, yes and no. I don’t think anyone could have predicted that a virus would lead to this level of chaos that we’ve seen across education and broader society. And no one and no ERM program deserves blame or fault for missing a pandemic of this scale. And even in ERM programs that did talk about pandemics, it was often in terms of past pandemics like the Ebola pandemic from several years ago. These were flash-in-the-pan outbreaks rather than a sustained emergency or business interruption. However, the value of ERM really is in its ability to prepare for major crises like these.

And while we didn’t know it was going to be a pandemic, we did know that major business disruptions like this were possible and these should have been on every institution’s risk register. I can even think back to other events like the Umpqua Community College shooting, for example, which restricted access to campus for a couple of weeks afterwards. And not only was there a major interruption to the students’ lives, but there were interruptions to IT, to business processes as well. ERM creates that foundation to build these rapid response teams and to have plans ready to go when there are big risks that do occur. But I think about ERM and COVID-19, the really big difference between how you might respond to COVID-19 versus how you might organize your ERM program is that ERM is prospective, whereas the COVID-19 response teams, in many cases, have been reactive.

Of course, we at UE didn’t fully see a pandemic like this occurring either. While we mentioned health risks in that first edition of the book, we had to expand on pandemics for this new edition.

Swartout: Wow. So you were still editing the book as the pandemic was starting?

Kollinger: That’s right. We had done a full draft, [and] we had to go back and edit the pandemic into the book because the risk landscape does continue to change.

Swartout: I guess that goes to show just how much we all had to adapt this year. Talking about emerging risks begs the question, Liza, do you see ERM as more or less valuable coming out of the global pandemic?

Kabanova: If anything, this pandemic has shown us the tremendous value in partnership. Leaders at the entire institution really need to coordinate and work together to understand and manage very complex risks. I can’t think of a time when leaders needed a process both to identify and assess new risks and also to coordinate everyone’s response. Having an ERM process in place means that senior leaders are trained to have conversations about risk management and have those existing relationships in place before a crisis happens. Of course, all institutions require leaders to talk to each other about their efforts. But ERM is really unique in that it means that leaders not only talk about their work, they also talk about risk management.

And I’ve heard some campuses define ERM as “everyone is a risk manager” or E-R-M. And that’s exactly it. ERM empowers leaders to own risk management and risk management efforts.

Kollinger: Yeah. And I would add to that, the pandemic has really shown that on many campuses, risk management was treated as an operational enabler for resuming operations on campus again after the pandemic was underway. It wasn’t really a strategic partner in many instances on how we were going to make the decision to even come back to campus in the first place. I think on a lot of campuses, those decisions were made without a full consideration of the risks. And I think that that’s what’s led to this wide discrepancy in the outcomes that we’re seeing from institutions’ return to campus. We’ve seen some be very successful. We’ve seen some with really disastrous cases, and we’ve seen very many in between. ERM is a great way to say that risk management is going to be a strategic partner moving forward and contribute to decision-making in these times of uncertainty.

Swartout: Have you seen throughout the pandemic any specific examples where leaders used ERM or maybe a similar process to plan or manage risk?

Kollinger: Yeah, there was a state flagship university that comes to mind where their ERM team essentially converted to be their COVID-19 team. This is a university who just in a couple of weeks after the University of Washington decided to close their campus, they formed their ERM team under the auspices of COVID-19, of course. And they already had on their ERM team cross-university representation from all of the key areas of campus. And because they were on the ERM team, they were used to dealing in terms of uncertainty. And, of course, in mid to late March, uncertainty was all we had. So this was a group that was able to come together based off of their ERM backgrounds, bring conversations in from all over campus.

And then they actually turned to the very first few weeks of their COVID-19 response into risk mitigation plans that were developed straight from their ERM program. And so while it was taking that into a different context, it was really built off of the foundations of what they do with ERM.

Swartout: We talked a bit about emerging risks earlier, so I’m curious if there are any risks that the pandemic either created or maybe exacerbated.

Kabanova: That’s a great point, Sam. We know that some risks were already there before the pandemic unfolded – everything from funding and enrollment to student mental health and diversity and inclusion. We’ve certainly seen the pandemic cause some of these risks to actually speed up. Student enrollment, for example, was already in decline before 2020. And we saw those risks grow as a result of in-person classes, work, and activities being canceled the spring of 2020 and into the fall. In fact, early on in the pandemic, fewer students were reporting that they would enroll for the fall of 2020 and Inside Higher Ed, for example, reported that 56% of higher education institutions had not met their admissions goals by July of 2020.

That said, campuses have risen to the occasion. Many had to shift quickly to remote operations and learning, which also existed in some ways before the pandemic, but pose a much more significant impact on institutions than before the pandemic. We challenged institutions to really look for those opportunities that result from this new virtual reality, including investing in technology and training for anyone involved in the learning process.

Swartout: I know we’ve all had to get comfortable with using online platforms since the pandemic began. And myself, like many others, can find working or learning in virtual environments frustrating. I’m wondering what effects this has had on our mental health or well-being.

Kabanova: It’s definitely something we can all relate to. We certainly saw early on in the pandemic that faculty and staff were burning out from the constant change and the uncertainty. Faculty needed to adapt quickly from in-person to virtual environments. And now we’re at a point where we need to consider the prolonged effect of adapting to a new normal.

Swartout: Have you seen an effect on student mental health too?

Kabanova: Definitely. Students are just as impacted by uncertainty, constant change, and a sense of loss over the types of in-person activities they will be missing out on this year. We’re seeing lack of human connection and financial and emotional strain impact students of all ages, actually. The NIH and the World Health Organization reported that in young children and teens, the pandemic and lockdown have had a greater impact on emotional and social development compared to that of grownups. Children are experiencing higher rates of anxiety, sleeplessness, and acting out in the classroom setting as a result. When it comes to higher education, a CDC study reported that a quarter of 18- to 24-year-olds surveyed had seriously considered suicide during the pandemic. In a separate study, they found that college students are identifying depression and anxiety more often than in previous years.

The same can be said about graduate students, unfortunately. The Chronicle of Higher Ed cited alarming statistics. For example, nearly 70% of graduate students describe their mental health and well-being as low or poor this year. And over a third said they had moderate or high levels of depression and anxiety. These studies aren’t all-encompassing, but they do offer a glimpse into how this public health crisis has already impacted our communities. And they really suggest that this crisis will impact us for years to come.

Swartout: This really highlights that campuses need to consider availability and access to mental health resources, particularly as many members of the community may be isolated or at risk for not having access to important resources. What about accessibility, particularly when it comes to individuals with a disability?

Kollinger: Yeah. I think that’s a really great point, Sam. This has really brought the online learning to the fore and, of course, online learning is not new. We’ve been doing it for decades. But in the past, it was basically opt-in. If you were a student who thought that online learning could serve you well, you would choose to do that. And if you thought that you would be better in-person, you would choose to be in-person. However, now we’re in an era where it’s really hard to opt-out of online learning. And people with disabilities can’t necessarily avoid it, even if they don’t learn well with it.

And so now we’re seeing potential liabilities arise here, particularly in K-12 schools, although not exclusively. K-12 schools are obligated to serve students with disabilities through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, better known as IDEA. And we’re starting to see lawsuits pop up that allege that remote learning might violate IEPs in public schools. So, I think it really raises the question – you have to ask yourself, “Are your tech platforms discriminatory in the way that they are designed?” Again, I think this is a particularly big issue for K-12 schools [that] might not have the internal capacity to audit every one of their systems for barriers to students and their families with disabilities, but this is just as relevant for higher ed institutions as well.

Swartout: There certainly is a lot to think about here. What other risks have we seen change or shift as a result of the pandemic?

Kollinger: It’s really hard to come up with single answers that are applicable to every institution out there. And so, I encourage all listeners to think about what they’re doing new to help identify emerging risks. And of course, a lot of the things that we’re doing with pandemic response are new. And when you’ve done something that you’ve never done before, you’re likely to have risks and uncertainties associated with it just for no other reason than lack of experience.

To give you an example, I think of diversity, equity, and inclusion. I think it’s a little bit more obvious at this point, but some were surprised to see the risks associated with that starting to pop up and become more severe earlier in the year. But if you think about it, this pandemic has caused institutions to contend with things like remote learning, the economic impact on their institutions and on the students and families they serve. It’s had a health impact that’s been disproportionate on different groups of people. It’s affected our overall social climate as well. And every single one of those things that we’re dealing with that is new have diversity, equity, and inclusion impact. And what might seem like an obvious response to the pandemic that would have benefited most students can be detrimental to some groups of students, really exacerbating diversity, equity, and inclusion risks. And this story is by no means over, more is going to evolve here.

Kabanova: That’s right, Justin. Something else campuses are considering when it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusion, is whether students have access to basic resources like food and housing and access to internet or technology for the virtual courses or activities that they may now be part of. The Chronicle of Higher Education discussed the unequal costs of the digital divide, which included that 57% of college students polled this summer mentioned that having access to stable high-speed internet connection could be challenging if they continued their education online.

Swartout: We already discussed how online learning is affecting so many campuses, which makes me wonder: How has the pandemic affected campuses from a strategic position?

Kollinger: This is a great question, Sam. And again, this is one that is going to vary depending on the institution. So, think about it in terms of why your students chose your institution. At the end of the day, they did it because they thought you would serve them best. But now you can’t serve them in the same way that you serve them before. This was really a risk to your ability as an institution to achieve your mission.

I’m reminded of a news story from some faculty at Gallaudet University, the only university in the United States designed for deaf and hard-of-hearing students. And these faculties were reporting on their struggles to find online platforms that were good for synchronous learning and American Sign Language.

I think that’s a really good story to highlight how a group of students chose an institution for a certain reason, but now the pandemic has interrupted that institution’s way of delivering that experience that the students had chosen whenever they chose their university. So, I would ask all listeners to think about what has changed in the way that students are being served that might no longer achieve the mission of the institution and achieve your students’ personal missions as well. And I think that that’s a really great place to start to look for strategic risks.

Swartout: What about from a financial standpoint?

Kollinger: Yeah. Looking forward, we’re going to have to deal with major financial impacts here and they’re going to be wide-ranging. In the past, many institutions had turned to partnerships, often with private companies, to access capital in times of financial stress. But those partnerships also create new financial risks. And as a result of the pandemic, I can very easily see a world in which institutions are seeking out partnerships to help them access capital and to shore up their financial position in the short-term.

However, again, if you look at the past, some of those risks are really coming to light today as a result of the pandemic. I can think of institutions that have partnered with other organizations for the construction of residence halls, for example. And a residence hall contract with a partner 10 years ago, that might have guaranteed a certain level of residency, otherwise the university would have to make a minimum payment to the partner. This may have seemed low risk about 10 years ago. But we’re seeing how that has become actually a major issue today.

So, assume partnerships are going to be part of your future and that your partner and your institution are going to try to limit their risk. When you’re going into these discussions on how you’re going to manage your financial risks in the future, at least in this case, when it comes to partnerships, go in with a risk tolerance in mind so that you know what is going to be too much risk for your institution to take on in a given partnership. And then if that partnership is looking to be too risky, walk away. If you don’t need that partnership, certainly you want to think about what are those long-term financial risks that you might be setting up for yourself, all as a result of the short-term financial needs from this pandemic.

Swartout: It sounds like campuses are really going to have to think outside the box to help meet these changing demands.

Kabanova: Well, the good news is that it’s never too late to start the strategic process. Even before the pandemic, we heard from leaders that their institutions are better prepared when they have ERM programs in place. They’re more coordinated in their response to unexpected changes or uncertainty, something that really any campus can benefit from. So this is a tool that’s available to every campus.

Swartout: So, what’s the first step leaders can take if they don’t have an ERM program yet?

Kabanova: Talk with your senior leaders and board about the value of a strategic process. Start by having conversations about who would participate in an ERM committee and what your annual process will look like. To start the process, you’ll want to start by identifying risks that affect the entire institution’s mission, reputation, and financial prospects – like some of the ones that Justin and I talked about today. The second step is to assess to ones you’ll want to commit to tackling first. The third is really the most important, and it’s all about taking action to manage those risks. We really encourage institutions to spend the majority of their time and resources on taking action and managing risks on campus. And finally, leaders need to make sure they report on the progress they’re making on a regular cadence, whether that’s on a quarterly basis with the ERM committee or annually to the board or senior administration.

And that will start the process all over again for the following year when you’ll identify new risks and so on.

Swartout: Are there any final thoughts you’d like to share?

Kollinger: Two come to mind for me. I really just want to emphasize that ERM is a great tool to help with emerging risk. ERM brings in perspectives from all across campus, to have a conversation where you can listen and question in a place where you are not expected to know the answers, you’re expected to talk about uncertainty. And while it’s going to be impossible to see everything, ERM helps build a foundation for response. I really do think resilience is going to be a key interest for a lot of trustees and a lot of public stakeholders as we emerge from the pandemic. Get ahead of their concern now, build your ERM programs, start to have these more strategic discussions about risk so that you can be prepared for those stressors that are still coming down the pike that we haven’t seen yet.

And one other note that I would like to make, Sam, for our UE members who are listening, be sure to look for the ERM resources and resources on many of the other risks that we discussed today on They are there to help give you a foothold, get started on building out your ERM program and, of course, to mitigate some of these other risks.

Swartout: Well, if our conversation today has made one thing clear, it’s that this pandemic has given us all much to think about on how best to educate students in this new virtual reality. And it’s also encouraging to know any campus can drive more collaboration and proactive conversations by using tools like ERM to help their response during an event like the global pandemic. Thanks for talking with me today, Justin and Liza.

Host: From United Educators Insurance, this is the Prevention and Protection Podcast. For additional United Educators resources, please visit our website,