Member Spotlight: Grinnell College Makes ERM a Priority

July 2014 | 0 Comments  Average 0 out of 5

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Most higher education institutions haven’t embraced the concept of enterprise risk management (ERM), according to recent research  by the  Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges (AGB) and United Educators (UE). Instead of assessing and addressing threats across the institution—which is highly valued in the business sector—college and university administrators tend to tackle one hazard at a time. This limited approach is less likely to identify and resolve risks that could damage the institution’s reputation or interfere with its mission, AGB and UE concluded.

Grinnell College is trying to change that—one small liberal arts college at a time—beginning at home. A professor-turned-administrator spent the 2013-2014 academic year leading a study of the ERM approach, identifying and addressing risks across the Grinnell, Iowa, campus, sharing information with colleagues on a blog, and developing resources to share with other institutions. This enabled Grinnell to incorporate broad risk management into day-to-day life and identify enterprisewide risks it should tackle.

Challenge Accepted

Paula Smith was about to end her term as vice president for academic affairs and return to her duties as an English professor at Grinnell when she decided to remain in administration for another year to help adapt business-oriented ERM concepts to the educational environment. “It was something we had just started, and I didn’t want to see us lose the momentum,” she said.

For more information about ERM in education, see Risk Management: An Accountability Guide for University and College Boards  by UE President and CEO Janice M. Abraham.

Raynard Kington, president of Grinnell since 2010, introduced ERM to senior administrators. The physician and former deputy director of the National Institutes of Health assumed that a college would have comprehensive risk management in place. “One of the first questions he asked was, ‘What are our institutional plans and policies to manage risk?’ We realized we were individually managing risk in our own areas, but not really coordinating our efforts,” Smith said. “It takes broad awareness across the institution and purposeful collaboration to make sure risks are minimized. Traditional ERM is predicated on clearer lines of authority, so it’s no small task to map risk management onto the governance of even a small college."

The administrative side of an educational institution resembles a corporate structure, with supervisors at each level, but the similarities begin to diverge there. “You complicate that picture when you try to account for the powers held by tenured faculty, the strong voice of students or alumni, and leaders who are elected from among the faculty, students, and sometimes the staff,” Smith said.

“It was interesting to see how some apparently mundane issues like road travel safety and student counseling services edged out the more dramatic crisis scenarios.”

—Paula Smith, director, Purposeful Risk Engagement Project, Grinnell College

With the president’s encouragement, she outlined her ideas for carrying out a yearlong project on risk that could benefit Grinnell and perhaps other campuses as well. Smith met with leaders and teams across campus to discuss risk and how their work contributes to the college’s mission. “This would lead us to consider the threats and obstacles they face in sustaining the mission,” she said. “I often came in with a list of sample risks to help us get started. I would hear things like, ‘I work on that issue all the time, but never thought of it as a risk.’ So people were learning a new language and perspective that could help them in their work.”

She developed the Purposeful Risk Engagement Project, or PREP—as in “prepared,”—for Grinnell and started the Prepared College blog to track progress and share what her colleagues have learned about ERM, including identifying risks and developing strategies for managing them. “The website is the communication tool that reaches the widest audience,” she said.

The campus leaders realized some team members needed additional resources, training, or approval to spend more time on a particular risk. Smith relayed those concerns to senior leadership and, in some cases, was able to allocate modest funds to advance the ERM work. “The goal … was not only to gather information, but also to generate action, to promote understanding that all risks at the college are connected, and to show that considerations of risk have a place in every decision-making process,” she said.

Doing Business With ERM

Grinnell added risk ownership to job descriptions to demonstrate that risk management is an important part of leadership on campus.

“We’re working to integrate risk management into every process, from the orientation of new students and employees to budgetary and strategic planning.”

—Paula Smith

"We’ve also talked about how to ensure that risk is a key consideration in allocating budgets and staff positions. For day-to-day risk management, while ideally every employee should think about risk, I’ve focused this year on college leaders—the directors, managers, administrative or academic deans, and elected faculty representatives—and encouraged them to spread the word to their staff and colleagues,” Smith said.

Grinnell administrators have developed separate risk registers for specific areas (e.g., student affairs, development, or information technology services) and for the college as a whole. “It’s better to spend less time creating the register—you can always add or edit later—and more time making a difference on the risks everyone agrees are important,” Smith said.

They prioritized risks by probability and potential impact. “It was interesting to see how some apparently mundane issues like road travel safety and student counseling services edged out the more dramatic crisis scenarios, like active shooters and catastrophic computer viruses—the things that come to mind first when people hear the word ‘risk,’” Smith said.

Building on Success

Once Grinnell had laid the foundation for ERM at the college with this project, the president’s senior staff adopted a list of institutional risks to focus on in the coming year. The most challenging are those that could affect multiple areas of the college. “Interdisciplinary risks can elude accountability; we all tend to assume someone else is taking care of them,” she said.

One example is protecting minors on campus. Colleges with many programs that involve children, such as youth sports camps, arts outreach, and early-childhood research, may need to identify a single administrator who will oversee related policies for the institution, Smith said.

Another concern is disability services. Who is responsible for providing accessible facilities and websites, accommodations for employees, and assistive services and technologies for students? Grinnell is addressing such interdisciplinary challenges with cross-functional teams that make recommendations to decision makers.

“We’re working to integrate risk management into every process, from the orientation of new students and employees to budgetary and strategic planning,” Smith said.

Next, Grinnell will determine how to address the risks identified and make sure college leaders keep ERM in the forefront during the next academic year.

Ensure that your college is managing enterprisewide risks. Read our sample list of risks and take action as needed. 


By Julie Britt, communications associate

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