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Risky Business

Risk isn’t just something to avoid blindly, says Paula Smith ’82, especially when it comes to colleges like Swarthmore. 

“Risks stem from the range and complexity of pursuits in the liberal arts,” she says. “To yield relevance and value, liberal arts colleges need a risk-management model that keeps the academic mission central.”

Inspired by this challenge and drawing upon five years’ experience as the chief
academic officer at Grinnell College, Smith founded the Purposeful Risk Engagement Project and wrote the book Engaging Risk: A Guide for College Leaders (Rowman & Littlefield). Earlier this year, she led a panel on this topic at the annual meeting of the American Association of Colleges and Universities, where she explained why a little administrative foresight protects so much more than a financial bottom line.

“I understand on a personal level why threats to a college’s academic purpose—threats that undermine the quality of teaching, learning, and scholarship—are the vital risks to focus on,” she says. “It’s simple: Nothing matters more.”

While Swarthmore has a risk-management model in place, too many other colleges do not, according to Smith. Knowing that keeps her inspired to balance her work as a professor and novelist with her risk-management expertise—after all, she’s found, they’re not so different.

“Both fiction and risk management enlist what Henry James called ‘the imagination of disaster,’ ” she says with a smile. “Authors invent the most interesting trouble our characters can get into and—like a good risk-management expert—equip them to handle it.”

Web-Exclusive Q&A

What risks are present for liberal arts colleges like Swarthmore?

Liberal arts colleges are rife with risks. Some arise from a youthful student population that spends almost all its time on campus. Others spring from teaching methods that place students in direct contact with whatever they’re studying, even if those materials are fragile, disturbing, or dangerous. Risks stem from the range and complexity of pursuits in the liberal arts. Many colleges contend with financial risks, and all face challenges from beyond campus, ranging from political attacks on our relevance to steep demands for regulatory compliance.

Given this abundance of risks, it may seem surprising that risk management has been slow to take hold at liberal arts colleges, but the reluctance makes more sense when we recall that risk management was originally designed for the corporate and financial services sectors. To yield relevance and value, liberal arts colleges need a risk management model that keeps the academic mission central. Fortunately, such a model has been developed and put into practice by people at a number of liberal arts colleges, including Swarthmore. I’ve studied this new approach and written about it under the term “purposeful risk engagement.”


Discuss your journey founding Purposeful Risk Engagement Project (PREP).

When I was Grinnell’s academic vice president and dean, I didn’t see myself as a risk manager. Looking back, I realize that I managed risks every day. Our new president, Raynard Kington, arrived on campus about halfway through my term. Based on his experience at the National Institutes of Health, he asked to see the college’s risk management plan—assuming we had one. Well, we didn’t. And many colleges still don’t.

As I started reading about risk management in academia, I found that its framework was borrowed from the corporate world. That’s what gave me the idea for purposeful risk engagement. Instead of focusing on the financial bottom line, like a corporation, what if we placed the academic mission at the center—how would that look?

I found myself inverting diagrams and trying to solve an interesting puzzle. As the end of my term approached, I shared with President Kington the idea of turning this puzzle into a project. I wanted to look into what other liberal arts colleges were doing, and he agreed that we could benefit from gathering and sharing what we learned.

Between leaving the dean’s office and returning to the faculty, I worked full time on PREP. I took Grinnell’s leaders on a “campus tour of risk” and worked with many people to develop a list of top risks we would address. A year later, we reviewed progress and revised our list. Meanwhile, I created the Prepared College blog and wrote Engaging Risk: A Guide for College Leaders. Now I’m back to teaching, but part of my time is still reserved to support campus initiatives that tackle risk.


Ultimately, what's the benefit of risk?

To help make good decisions, “risk” cultivates the habit of thinking ahead. A problem or crisis exists already—here, in the present—and it’s easy to conclude that you’ve arrived too late to resolve it. Risk, on the other hand, always exists in the future. When you think about risk, you shift into a mode of planning, forecasting, selecting your strategy. Whether it’s a matter of safety, access, technology, finances, or anything else, you envision what can go wrong and what must go right. Looking through the lens of risk can focus a set of options.

Risk managers use simple principles like the “four T’s” (transferring, tolerating, treating, and terminating risk), root-cause analysis, and functional redundancy in their work. They marshal present knowledge to gain the clearest possible view of the future. Most liberal arts college leaders are unfamiliar with the basics of risk management, but it’s worth investing a little time to learn them. To view something as a risk entails the discipline to consider alternative outcomes, weigh the likelihood of each, and take specific actions that help bring about the outcome desired.


In addition to your academic work, you're also a poet and novelist. How do your varied interests inform one another?

Both fiction and risk management enlist what Henry James called “the imagination of disaster.” Story writers and novelists invent the most interesting trouble our characters can get into—and equip them to handle it. We give them a stake in the story: What do characters fear to lose? What do they stand to gain? What goes according to plan and what goes awry? Will they overcome the forces threatening their future?

Risk managers, too, tell stories. They spin out scenarios asking “what if?” and envision everything that might happen: what can go wrong, what matters most, what simply has to go right? Then they plot active steps to mitigate the outcome.

Coming back to teach the craft of fiction, I see risk as a promising concept to replace the old saw about developing a conflict (“man versus man, man versus society, man versus himself”). Conflict is ok, but “risk” captures both vulnerability and ambition. A fictional character can live at the mercy of certain risks, or can intentionally risk something important to gain a reward.


How did Swarthmore help shape your career and perspective?

My Swarthmore professors inspired me to pursue an academic career. The tutorial I’m currently teaching, “Old English Reimagined,” uses Craig Williamson’s beautiful translation of the Exeter Book riddles. I could name a long list of Swarthmore faculty members who continue to shape my perspective; I’m still in touch with some of them. Friends met in college, not least my spouse (Paul Tjossem ’81), are among those most important to me. And we’re not the only Swarthmore alumni on the faculty at Grinnell. In classes and conversations, whether about ancient history or current events, so many ideas trace back to conversations held in Parrish, Sharples, or the Crum.