It was 1997, I had not been working at Stephen F. Austin State University for a month and I faced my first major risk management issue. We produced a summer carnival for students to let off some steam during the summer school session. It was a typical set-up. A small stage with a couple of local musical acts, food including pizza, hot dogs, you know, carnival food. We also have field day type events, including some inflatables. One of these inflatables was a “obstacle course” that we have all seen many times over. Now, the day was going well. Overall, everyone was having a blast even if it was a bit hot, being East Texas in July.
I was not too long in the afternoon and I heard a blood curdling scream. On the obstacle course a student had ignored the inflatable instructions and slid headfirst down the slide. As she picked up speed, she put her arms out and snapped one of them in two like a toothpick. It was a gnarly as you imagine it to be. She is screaming, shock is setting in, and her arm is a bit of a mess. Luckily for us we had paramedics waiting close by. In less than two minutes they were on the scene and stabilizing her arm. She went to the hospital, had surgery, and ended up doing just fine.
While this was my first foray into real risk management issues in student affairs, it was by far not the last. In my 25-year career I have seen my fair share of gruesome injuries, poor decisions, bad behavior, and dangerous situations. From a student leader who did not realize he was allergic to Tylenol and went into anaphylactic shock to having your busses not show up after your spirit teams get back from their National Championship in Daytona and you need to find four busses on the fly. To protecting free speech to the point you have bomb snigging dogs at the event to forgetting to add a FERPA clause to a contract and nearly exposing thousands of student’s info to public there is a lot that you do and don’t do that can really get you in hot water.
With that in mind there are several lessons I have learned that are unconventional in my management of risk management in my career that have really helped me manage risk but not get paralyzed by lawsuit fear. For many higher ed professionals like myself we live in a constant state of awareness that makes it so we don’t always know if we have control or not. We know that its not the things you thought about but the things you do not see coming that can get you fired. So here are five lessons that I have learned, and I hope they will help you.
- It is always better to be on a witness stand explaining why you were trying to assure student safety than trying to explain you were just following policy. Look, I am a rules follower, this is for sure, but I learned early on that it is better to err on the side of student safety than what the policy says. When my busses did not show up, I did not have contractual obligation to contract another company and was advised that I could risk having to pay for the busses if I agreed to a contract that was not approved by legal. I rolled the dice. The other suggestion was to have parents and friends come to the airport and pick students up. This opened us up to too many variables including accidents, not knowing who is coming to pick students up, and it was also very inefficient. So, I signed the contract and was commended for taking charge. I did it because student safety came first.
- Do not ever promise anything to a person who is injured or harmed. This is hard to do. You want to assure the student they will be okay if they have been injured or if they have been bullied. But you can’t promise anything in the long run. I had a student, who was horsing around at a summer camp I oversaw, fall and get a concussion. His parents wanted me to assure them they would not have any out-of-pocket medical expenses. I could not promise this. That is not the way our insurance worked. I cannot promise justice or safety, I can only work to make it be the most likely outcome.
- The show goes on until the lawyers or police say to shut it down. I have never, ever shut an event down unless I was specifically told by authorities to do so. This is especially true for campus protests or free speech events. I know I do not have the legal authority to protect free speech rights and that needs to come from law enforcement or legal experts. When I have had controversial speakers on campus, I know it can get touchy but we need a declaration from those who can make the decision to shut things down.
- Know that risk management is more than injuries and mental anguish. We have lots of way we can bring risk to a university. From not following contractual policy to exposing student information to unsavory parties there is a lot we need to account for. That is why it is important to strike up a good relationship with your general counsel’s office. Also, make sure you have legally signed agreements for everything. I know the process can be long, but it is always worth it.
- Begin with a triage and play out the reasonable person scenarios. I do this all of the time. I play disaster theatre. What can go wrong? What will we do? I especially workshop this for young professionals and student leaders. If we have acknowledged risk and discussed how we can address it then we are already a step ahead. Also, get first aid certified. Those skills will always come in handy. Overall, I go by the reasonable person rule. I know I am considered more than a reasonable person, I am usually the responsible party but I also believe that if you consider what would most humans do to fix the situation then you are gonna be right 99 times out of 100.
Look, risk happens. And even the best laid plans can result in harm. Risk management is not the absence of harm but the response to it. The more we know to address this reality the better off we will be. More Later.