Paula Vene Smith is a professor of English and director of the Purposeful Risk Engagement Project at Grinnell College. Email her at

Will 2014 be the Year of Risk Engagement for deans, provosts and presidents?

Enterprise risk management is now common in the corporate world. ERM has several competing definitions, but its essence can be drawn from two senses of the word “enterprise.” First, these programs evaluate risk across the whole organization, so they are enterprisewide. Second, ERM considers not only negative risks — related to harm and loss — but also the positive risks that represent new opportunities, for a more “enterprising” approach.

Why should universities and colleges adopt ERM? Risk assessment offers a powerful tool for decision-making. As I’ve studied this field, I can see that the evaluation of competing risks played into many — perhaps most — of the decisions I made during my five years as a chief academic officer.

Today’s heightened attention to issues such as Title IX compliance, Clery Act compliance and alcohol on campus compels academic leaders to search for ways to manage emerging risks.

Once you realize that risk management can add value beyond the traditional realms of financial audits and insurance, you can discover new resources, better than what has been previously available. In 2014 it’s possible to expand the world of academic risk response.

A resource for every risk

Websites of organizations that specialize in higher education risk management, such as United Educators, EIIA and URMIA, now offer “risk information libraries,” online courses, educational blogs and webinars. Many of these resources are openly available, though some are accessible only to member institutions.

Just about any risk your institution faces, from tenure denials and negative social media to injuries suffered by visitors on campus, can be fully researched along with options for responding to situations according to best practices.

These online resources are more abundant than ever before, and they’re frequently updated. As a college leader, you can direct staff members who report to you to the tools they need to understand any campus risk.

New book on the role of boards

In April 2013, the Association of Governing Boards released a book by Janice Abraham. The book, simply titled Risk Management, is an accountability guide to help governing boards understand their own role in managing risk. Abraham, president and CEO of United Educators, recommends the wise application of risk management as a tool for academic governance. She was a keynote speaker at the annual meeting of the AGB in the spring, and addressed the Annapolis Group of college presidents in June.

Abraham’s book is an excellent guide to help members of your board ask the right questions and engage in productive dialogue with your president, you, and the rest of your institution’s executive leadership in 2014.

Current project on purposeful risk engagement

In the final year of my term as dean, I became so interested in what ERM had to offer universities and colleges that I embarked on a one-year project to study, write about, and help my institution develop a new approach to risk.

The Purposeful Risk Engagement Project is based at Grinnell College, but through its site at, the ideas and principles are accessible to all. Elements of the project include centralizing a database of the college’s compliance policies, assisting each administrative office to develop a risk management plan with annual goals, and maintaining a weblog that shares our insights and invites leaders from other institutions to participate in dialogue about campus risk.

PREP translates the corporate language and ideas of enterprise risk management into a framework that will appeal and be more relevant to academic leaders, including faculty.

To take advantage of the resources described here, consider assembling a team on your own campus to explore and develop a robust program of risk engagement in the upcoming year.