John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Risk Management for Students and Their Educators Too

January 14, 2013John N. GardnerInsights0

John N. Gardner

Somewhere between 15-20 years ago, an informal group of administrative leaders and innovators, including myself, at the University of South Carolina got together and created a “risk management advisory council” for the institution. Wow. This was really advanced stuff. At that point in time our institution did not have any officer or office charged with risk management for our large and complex enterprise. I spent the next few years as an active and learning, member of this group. The practice of intentional risk management is truly important for viable organizations.

To fast forward to the present, over Thanksgiving holiday, I had lunch with a special friend and colleague of mine, Dr. Mark Lange, at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Mark is Associate Dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences and is the founder and organizer of the now annual New England Conference on Student Success. He was down in Tennessee visiting one of his daughters, who is on the faculty of East Tennessee University and he had made the easy run down to Asheville to get together with me. One of the things that he was catching me up on was his offering in 2013 a course on the Psychology of Risk Management.  Hmm. I had never heard of such a course topic. Sounded like a good idea to me.

And then for an even more immediate perspective on risk management, there is my own personal practice of risk management. I don’t smoke, drink alcoholic beverages very moderately, wear seatbelts, exercise vigorously daily, practice dietary discipline and restraint, and try to balance work hard with play hard.

But in past two weeks on my daily jog, I have tripped and reverted to little boy status coming home with really skinned up knees. So I have instituted a new personal risk management policy: as I approach curbs now while running, I slow to a walk and negotiate them much more slowly and deliberately. One of the indicators of adulthood is that we learn from experience and adapt accordingly.

As with many of my adult experiences, such as these in my recent running habits, to films I have seen recently, I often try to apply what I am thinking about to our work with college students. In that vein, I think we need to be much more intentional about teaching them risk management.

We could start by simply introducing the concept of risk, and then risk management. We could get them to brainstorm examples of risk related behaviors, from minor to more significant. They could keep a log. Reflect on their patterns. Consider which ones might be worth trying to “manage.” I think this would fit in very nicely with the larger concept many of us try to get first-year college students to think about, namely, the idea of locus of control. As I think about especially our traditional-aged students, you know, the ones who think they are going to live forever, there is no doubt that many of them engage in a wide range of risk behaviors. They take risks, even seek them out, often without much thought at all. I suggest we get them started by focusing on the ones that are less consequential and then trying to up the ante. Some of these behaviors are by now deeply ingrained and simply telling them not to engage in them is not going to work.

I remember an example of that from my late thirties. I had changed dentists. And the first time I saw my new dentist he told me: “I can see you don’t use dental floss. Can you give me a reason for not doing so that I have not heard?!” I couldn’t. Then he said: “I am sure you have been told you must floss every day, right? But I am not going to tell you that. I am going to ask you to try to floss once a week and come back and see me in three months and tell me if you have been able to do this once a week.” I took on the dental floss challenge. And when I came back three months later I was flossing every day, not once a week. About a year later when I reached forty, and decided to take up running again, I realized I needed to take the dental floss approach—manage my risk related to inactivity not by trying to run several miles my first day out, but to start instead by interspersing speed walking and jogging moderately for very short distances. In relatively short order I had become a runner again.

I think that more of us need to be a bit more intrusive in our students’ lives and suggest to them that think about the risks they are taking, and introduce to them the concept of personal risk management. Risk management should be for all of us.

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