Higher Education

9 Critical Issues Facing Higher Education

Financial pressures and societal changes are challenging university risk managers like never before.
By: | June 7, 2018 • 3 min read

With the very necessity of a four-year degree in question in many circles, higher education risk managers face a litany of risks including institutional financial solvency, massive class actions due to concussion injury suffered by football and hockey players and the risk that minors or other at-risk populations will suffer injuries on college campuses.


The recent $500 million settlement between Michigan State and the hundreds of young female gymnasts victimized by Dr. Larry Nassar is seen as a bellweather event that signals more massive settlements are coming, involving colleges and universities which fail to protect their students from sexual assault or other forms of abuse.

The award in the Nassar case dwarfs the $109 million settlement that Penn State reached with victims of former football coach Jerry Sandusky. Sexual assault is just one of 9 critical issues facing higher education risk managers.

1) Financial Solvency

The recent bankruptcy declaration by Mount Ada College in Massachusetts could be the canary in the coal mine. Higher education risk managers are starting to question whether schools are paying enough attention to market factors such as the increasing cost of attracting and retaining students, a rising income and wealth disparity that makes college unaffordable for so many.

2) Athletic Concussion Injury

It’s not just the NFL and the NHL facing lawsuits from dozens of former players who claim  playing sports left them with degenerative brain injuries.

More than 100 personal injury class action lawsuits have been filed against the NCAA, claiming that universities and university athletic associations were way too late in establishing protocols for managing and treating athletic head injuries. The settlements in these cases could easily run into the hundreds of millions.

3) Sexual Assault

When they came out, the allegations were almost too awful to believe, but even after a $500 million settlement with Michigan State University over the actions of disgraced athletic physician Larry Nassar, now we know that more settlements are on the way.

USC has been rocked by a scandal that took down the University’s president. In this environment, it’s only a matter of time before the lid is blown on yet another case where an employee of an academic institution is found to have abused their position of power.

4) Gender Equality Issues

Campuses are hotbeds for controversies over gender issues such as equal rights for LGBT students, equal pay for female professors and whether female athletes are accorded the same privileges as male athletes as they should be under Title IX. As the professional and social cultures in the United States continue to evolve, watch for the #MeToo movement and other awareness building campaigns to unearth more disparities and abuses, and more multi-million dollar settlements.

5) Gradual but Dangerous Erosion of the Belief in Higher Education’s Value

There is an increasing tide of anti-intellectual rhetoric about how college is unnecessary and not worthwhile.


This is accompanied by a decrease in the number of people willing to invest their money and time in a college education. Culturally, we are seeing a wave of dogma and simplistic slogans that are crowding out evidence-based research and the open inquiry that a college educational environment cultivates.

6) Campus Crisis Readiness

As the mass shootings at Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois University illustrated, university campuses are not immune from the wave of shooting sprees that have terrorized workplaces and academic institutions for decades. In addition to mass shootings, universities face liability, reputational harm and property damage from severe storms, hazardous material releases and student protests.


Additional risks:

7) Cyber

8) Minors on Campus

9) Special Events and Conference Management

Sources include the University Risk Management and Insurance Association; Cornell University; Gallagher;  Zachary Gifford, Director, Systemwide Risk Management, the California State Universities; Jack Hampton, a Professor of Business at Saint Peter’s University, and Paula Vene Smith, director of the Purposeful Risk Management Project and a professor at Grinnell College.

Dan Reynolds is editor-in-chief of Risk & Insurance. He can be reached at [email protected]

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

4 Companies That Rocked It by Treating Injured Workers as Equals; Not Adversaries

The 2018 Teddy Award winners built their programs around people, not claims, and offer proof that a worker-centric approach is a smarter way to operate.
By: | October 30, 2018 • 3 min read

Across the workers’ compensation industry, the concept of a worker advocacy model has been around for a while, but has only seen notable adoption in recent years.

Even among those not adopting a formal advocacy approach, mindsets are shifting. Formerly claims-centric programs are becoming worker-centric and it’s a win all around: better outcomes; greater productivity; safer, healthier employees and a stronger bottom line.


That’s what you’ll see in this month’s issue of Risk & Insurance® when you read the profiles of the four recipients of the 2018 Theodore Roosevelt Workers’ Compensation and Disability Management Award, sponsored by PMA Companies. These four programs put workers front and center in everything they do.

“We were focused on building up a program with an eye on our partner experience. Cost was at the bottom of the list. Doing a better job by our partners was at the top,” said Steve Legg, director of risk management for Starbucks.

Starbucks put claims reporting in the hands of its partners, an exemplary act of trust. The coffee company also put itself in workers’ shoes to identify and remove points of friction.

That led to a call center run by Starbucks’ TPA and a dedicated telephonic case management team so that partners can speak to a live person without the frustration of ‘phone tag’ and unanswered questions.

“We were focused on building up a program with an eye on our partner experience. Cost was at the bottom of the list. Doing a better job by our partners was at the top.” — Steve Legg, director of risk management, Starbucks

Starbucks also implemented direct deposit for lost-time pay, eliminating stressful wait times for injured partners, and allowing them to focus on healing.

For Starbucks, as for all of the 2018 Teddy Award winners, the approach is netting measurable results. With higher partner satisfaction, it has seen a 50 percent decrease in litigation.

Teddy winner Main Line Health (MLH) adopted worker advocacy in a way that goes far beyond claims.

Employees who identify and report safety hazards can take credit for their actions by sending out a formal “Employee Safety Message” to nearly 11,000 mailboxes across the organization.

“The recognition is pretty cool,” said Steve Besack, system director, claims management and workers’ compensation for the health system.

MLH also takes a non-adversarial approach to workers with repeat injuries, seeing them as a resource for identifying areas of improvement.

“When you look at ‘repeat offenders’ in an unconventional way, they’re a great asset to the program, not a liability,” said Mike Miller, manager, workers’ compensation and employee safety for MLH.

Teddy winner Monmouth County, N.J. utilizes high-tech motion capture technology to reduce the chance of placing new hires in jobs that are likely to hurt them.

Monmouth County also adopted numerous wellness initiatives that help workers manage their weight and improve their wellbeing overall.

“You should see the looks on their faces when their cholesterol is down, they’ve lost weight and their blood sugar is better. We’ve had people lose 30 and 40 pounds,” said William McGuane, the county’s manager of benefits and workers’ compensation.


Do these sound like minor program elements? The math says otherwise: Claims severity has plunged from $5.5 million in 2009 to $1.3 million in 2017.

At the University of Pennsylvania, putting workers first means getting out from behind the desk and finding out what each one of them is tasked with, day in, day out — and looking for ways to make each of those tasks safer.

Regular observations across the sprawling campus have resulted in a phenomenal number of process and equipment changes that seem simple on their own, but in combination have created a substantially safer, healthier campus and improved employee morale.

UPenn’s workers’ comp costs, in the seven-digit figures in 2009, have been virtually cut in half.

Risk & Insurance® is proud to honor the work of these four organizations. We hope their stories inspire other organizations to be true partners with the employees they depend on. &

Michelle Kerr is associate editor of Risk & Insurance. She can be reached at [email protected]