UNC-Wilmington damage (copy)

UNC-Wilmington sustained about $140 million worth of damage in September when it was hit by Hurricane Florence. Nearly half of this estimated cost is repairs to its science building, which took on two to three feet of water when it lost part of its roof. In this picture from September, UNCW uses blowers to dry out one of its academic buildings.

(I've updated this blog post below.)

In all my reporting and writing on higher education, I’ve come to realize a couple of things.

The first is that colleges and universities are complex places. There’s a lot more happening on campus than professors teaching, students learning and administrators, ah, doing whatever administrators do.

The second is that colleges and universities aren’t all that liberal or conservative.* Rather, they’re corporate and bureaucratic. Their top priority is the survival of the institution.

That’s why a short report I saw at the most recent UNCG Board of Trustees meeting struck me. The report was about risk, and it contained a list of what UNCG considers to be its top five risk factors.

Some quick background before we get to that risky business:

Risk management is now a thing in higher ed. I don’t know when exactly it happened; I just sort of noticed it one day. UNCG and A&T both have risk management operations. (UNCG has a standalone office, A&T handles it through its internal auditors, and both have Board of Trustees committees assigned to the topic.) This Chronicle of Higher Education column from 2014 says “‘enterprise risk management’ is one of the current obsessions of governing boards.” It’s possible that the risk management craze took longer to sweep North Carolina, or maybe I’m slow to notice stuff. Either could be true!

Risk, in short, is threats, both real and imagined. This quick primer put together by a management consulting firm identifies four main risk areas to higher ed: “financial, operational, strategic, and compliance. … The risks include anything you can imagine. Outbreaks of foodborne illness, campus violence, scandals, laboratory accidents, construction accidents or drops in interest rates.” Cybersecurity is another biggie.

Risk is a big deal because it has the potential to cost a lot of money. Lawyers, crisis communications and legal settlements aren’t cheap; neither is cleaning up after hurricane or having campus police officers guard a statue. A hit to a school’s reputation can mean declines in student applications and enrollment, alumni giving and community support.

Late last year, the UNC System asked all campuses to turn in by Dec. 31 what they called a Risk Register — the top five risks, broadly defined, on their campuses. The Board of Governors presumably will use these campus Risk Registers as it considers UNC System policy, personnel and budgets.

The UNCG list went before trustees at their December meeting. (It's here if you want to see the whole report for yourself.) I asked for and got A&T’s list. I’m presenting both here in abridged form just to give you an idea of some of the things that keep university administrators up at night.

I’ll start with UNCG:

1. Interaction with minors. UNCG has a day care program, the Middle College and summer camps, which means there are a lot of children on campus at various times. “Threats to the safe environment for minors on campus causing physical injury or other harm to minors,” the report says, could have grave consequences for the children as well as UNCG’s reputation.

2. Data security and cyberthreats. University computer systems hold a ton of data, and a lot of hackers would like to get hold of all that personal information. According to the report, “threats to our data security continue to increase at an alarmingly high rate and the financial aspects can be serious.”

3. Overall university regulatory compliance. UNCG (like all universities) must comply with local, state and federal laws, UNC System policies and NCAA rules. UNCG says it has “no formal mechanism … for developing an inventory of regulatory compliance areas. … In addition, there is no mechanism in place to ensure the quality of our compliance responses.”

4. Financial resource security and stability. Budget cuts, changes in the financial markets — because most of UNCG’s endowment is invested — and a general economic downturn are perennial concerns.

5. Campus safety. It’s not just violent crime, thefts or assaults. Students, faculty and staff face potential hazards such as fire, vehicle traffic, severe weather and hazardous materials. 

Now for A&T’s list:

1. Campus safety. This includes major crimes or criminal activities on or near campus.

2. Information security. This includes failure to comply with regulations and security standards, not to mention hacking or system failures.

3. Emergency preparedness. A campus-wide emergency or disaster, in other words.

4. Recruitment and retention of faculty.

5. Brand reputation and social media. Scandal, crime and social media attacks all pose risks to A&T’s reputation.

If I were putting together my own list, I'd probably include fraternities, Confederate statues and yearbooks

* Update, Feb. 18: In case I wasn't clear here, I was talking about the colleges and universities themselves and not any particular people who work there. I'm well aware (as a correspondent reminded me) that college professors generally tend to be more liberal than most folks. But the institutions themselves lean in hard toward the corporate, at least in my witnessed experience.

Have something to say about something you just read in this space? Email me at john.newsom@greensboro.com. You can also follow me on Twitter.

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