Risk Insider: Paula Vene Smith

No More Ivory Tower

By: | December 17, 2015 • 2 min read
Paula Vene Smith directs the Purposeful Risk Engagement Project (PREP) and is a professor at Grinnell College. Paula consults on risk in higher education, and has written Engaging Risk: A Guide for College Leaders. She can be reached at [email protected]

Joe Allen didn’t need to bring in the pink elephants.


As he launched our tabletop exercise, preparing to guide a group of campus employees through a fictional crisis scenario, Joe presented the ground rules:  “Even if I describe pink elephants rampaging across your campus, don’t object to the scenario. Accept my story as plausible and focus on the unfolding of procedures and judgments. What we’re working on is your level of emergency response.”

Several minutes later, though, no one would raise a doubt about the scenario given to us by Joe, an emergency operations planner visiting from Margolis Healy. The story featured a student threatening on social media to carry out a mass shooting on our campus.

For participants in the exercise, that prospect felt all too real.

Clearly, the day is past when people could talk about the academic “ivory tower” as immune to the harsher forces of the outside world. University risk managers now accept the reality that mass violence can erupt on campus — just as it can in a prayer meeting, a movie theater or the staff holiday party.

To set priorities for action, colleges with enterprise risk management programs develop a list of risks with most dramatic potential to disrupt their institutions and damage their reputations.  And violent incidents do just that.

Clearly, the day is past when people could talk about the academic “ivory tower” as immune to the harsher forces of the outside world.

With a moment’s thought, one can easily come up with a short list of prestigious universities whose very name, unfortunately, has become synonymous with a notorious crime — perhaps taking place many years ago — that involved multiple victims.

The risk of playing host to a nationally prominent disaster such as befell Penn State or Virginia Tech can never be reduced to zero, even by applying the most effective methods of risk management.

But the heartbreaking reports of what occurred on those campuses produced ripple effects of governmental legislation, many new institutional policies and innovative preventive measures designed to reduce the likelihood of such events in the future.


In late October 2015, the Iowa Board of Regents sponsored a first-ever statewide summit on campus safety and security. Representatives from dozens of institutions of higher education across the state gathered to present information and share discussion about Title IX investigations, threat assessment teams, violent incident response preparation (such as ALICE training), timely warning systems, bystander intervention and other topics.

The experiences described at the summit and questions asked by the audience showed that even in Iowa — a state not conspicuous for its high rate of violent crime — attention to these issues has become mandatory.

We all believe in pink elephants now. For those who lead colleges and universities, the threat of a violent incident, even the statistically unlikely prospect of a mass shooting on campus, has earned a solid place on the list of primary risks.

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

Risk Management

The Profession

Maila Aganon is the personification of the American dream. The vice president of treasury and risk for Caesars Entertainment Corp. immigrated from the Philippines and worked her way to the top.
By: | October 12, 2017 • 4 min read

R&I: What was your first job?

I actually had three first jobs at the same time at the age of 16. I worked as a cashier in a fast-food restaurant, a bank teller and a debt collector for an immigration law firm.

R&I: Who is your mentor and why?

I have a few. The first one would be the first risk manager I reported to. He taught me the technical part of the job, risk financing, captives and insurance. I am also privileged to be mentored by Lori Goltermann (CEO of U.S. Retail for Aon Risk Solutions).  From her I learned to be resilient and optimize life/work balance. Then of course I also have a circle of ladies at work who I lean in to!

R&I: How did you come to work in this industry?


I was once a bank teller and had a client who was an insurance agent. He would come in every day to make deposits. One day, he offered me a job. He said, “How would you like to have your own desk, your own phone and your own computer?” And I said, “When do I start?” I worked for this personal lines insurance company for six years.

R&I: Did you take to it immediately?

Yes, I did sales, claims and insurance accounting. I left for a couple years and that is when AAA came calling, which was my first introduction to risk management. I didn’t know there was such a thing as commercial insurance. They called me and the pitch was “how would you like to run a captive insurance company?”

R&I: What have you accomplished that you are proudest of?

It is not so much the job but I say that I am the true product of the American Dream. I came to the U.S. when I was 16. I worked three jobs because I didn’t want to go to high school (She’d already graduated high school in the Philippines.) I spoke very little English, and due to hard work, grit and a great smile I’m now here working with all of you!

R&I: What is your favorite book or movie?

In movies, it is a toss-up between Gone with the Wind and Big Daddy.

R&I: What is your favorite drink?


I like anything sweet. If you liquify a dessert that’s my perfect drink.

R&I: What is the most unusual/interesting place you have ever visited?

This is easy because I just got back from Barcelona on a side trip. I visited the Montserrat Monastery, which is a thousand-year old monastery. It was raining and foggy. I hiked for three hours and I didn’t see a single soul. It was a very peaceful place.

R&I: What is the riskiest activity you ever engaged in?

This is going back to working at a fast food chain when I was young. I worked in a very undesirable location in San Francisco. At 16 I used to negotiate with gang members so they wouldn’t rob me during my shift. I had to give them chicken so they wouldn’t rob me.

Maila Aganon, VP, Treasury and Risk, Caesars Entertainment Corp.

R&I: If the world has a modern hero, who is it and why? 

I can’t say me. They have to be my kids Kyle and Hailey. They can make me laugh and cry within a half-minute of each other. Kyle is 10, a perfect Mama’s boy. Hailey is seven going on 18.

R&I: What about this work do you find the most fulfilling or rewarding?

I think the most fulfilling part is how you build relationships with people and then after a while they become your friends.

R&I: What is the risk management community doing right?

Risk managers do a great job of networking. They are number one. Which is not a surprise because the pillar of our work is building a relationship with underwriters, clients and brokers.

R&I: What could the risk management community be doing a better job of? 


I am experiencing that right now; talent.  We need to a better job in attracting and retaining talent. Nobody knows about what we do. You tell someone ‘I’m as risk manager’ and they give you a blank look. What does that mean?

We’re great marketers and we should use this skill set in attracting talent. We should engage our universities, our communities, even our yoga groups and talk to them about the exciting world of risk. It is an exciting career because there is nothing like it.

R&I: What emerging commercial risk most concerns you? 

It would have to be the increasing cyber risk and the interdependency of systems.

R&I: What does your family think you do? 

I took my seven year old daughter once to an insurance event that had live music, dancing and drinks. She thinks that whenever I go to an insurance meeting, I’m heading to a party.

Katie Siegel is an associate editor at Risk & Insurance®. She can be reached at [email protected]