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Mindfulness & Risk Management

Small Colleges and Universities Division
November 10, 2015 Eric Hartman University of the South

Oxymoronic, right? Mindfulness is about being present and risk management is about managing the future, at least on good days.  Here, we are trying to bring them together to alleviate the chronic anxiety in exists in small colleges and student affairs.

Risk management is hardly a new term for small college administrators and I have to admit, it’s not a particularly interesting topic for most of us. Calling it “mindful” risk management probably will not magically create serenity.  Yet, amid new federal regulation mandates, accreditation processes, parental pressures, and increasing costs to manage these and so many other expectations, most of us are experiencing a growing pressure to manage risks. Risk, according to new emerging definitions, is a problem or opportunity that impacts our ability to meet our goals.  Risks need not only be negative; however, for most of us, we equate risk with fear.  Then, fear makes most of us sleep less and work more, which makes us all age more quickly. So, I consider this a framework for slowing down the affects of aging, managing stress, and remaining centered on meaningful work.


Teaching mindfulness or risk management to academic deans, directors and administrators is a challenge, so we created a simplified framework that resonates with professionals in higher education and merges the international accepted and tested standards, namely International Standards Organization (ISO 31000) with a few basic mindful practices. 

Our higher education risk management framework includes four primary steps—1) observe, 2) identify and analyze, 3) evaluate, 4) act, and 5) reevaluate.  It’s not complicated, but it does require adequate time and a bit of explanation. The model mirrors other institutional effectiveness or continuous improvement frameworks, like plan—do—study—act.  We painted ours in soft, natural colors to de-escalate anxiety.  I know, it doesn’t cure anxiety in the same way as sitting on the beach and listening to the crashing waves, but it does create an image that reminds us that all good work is a cycle. 


Mindfulness asks us to pause and pay attention to our consciousness.  What elevates your heart rate or is creating panic in your division or department.  In risk management,  universities must ask themselves, what is happening in the world beyond campus that relates to this specific panic, which is usually a risk of-sorts to your institution.  When we pause and reflect, we can ask ourselves if any external stakeholders seem to be changing their perception about a particular risk?  What political, economic, social, technological, legal, or environmental circumstances are unfolding external and internal to the University? Are those changes external from others or internal within you?  Often, the answer is both, but we are likely to recognize the stresses in our own work before the NY Times publishes an article about it. 

Small colleges must actively determine in each of our departments and divisions who will monitor a specific risk and your institution’s management process.  Delegate who will monitor emerging signals that can prompt a timely adjustment.  Monitoring risks is essential to making time-sensitive decisions in advance of a problem. This step also addresses residual risks.  Most of us avoid being assigned a specific risk, but avoidance makes the problem worst. Scheduling time to reflect and observe is essential.

The most acute example in student affairs is what are the changes in expectations from the Office for Civil Rights and Department of Education regarding Title IX and sexual misconduct.  How will your institution monitor the changing landscape?  For example, if small colleges across the country are offering significant interim measures to survivors of sexual misconduct upon submitting a report and your institution is slower and less thorough in offering support, then your institution will quickly fall shy of the emerging standard response. 

Who is monitoring what others are doing? What case law is emerging?  What are the emerging best practices that small colleges can reasonably manage with limited personnel and resources?  What are insurance companies reporting as major claims?  Most importantly, what seems to yield the greatest return on an institution’s investment? Just asking the questions causes some anxiousness, but identifying and delegating this task will help you and your institution.

Identify and Analyze

Naming and sharing a problem is an important step. In risk management identifying the risk is simply naming and describing the problem or opportunity.  Again, not all risks are negative or problematic.  Some risks can be framed in the positive, for example “achieving gender equity” is much more satisfying than “complying with those (insert expletive) Title IX federal guidelines.” 

Briefly describing each risk is, well, boring, I know. But once we identify the risk, it becomes more manageable.  We know how to ask for help.  We can start to share some of the responsibilities.  And, of course, we might even sleep a few more hours a week, knowing someone else needs to own a bit of this burden. 

Our version of this process identifies which season the risk is likely to occur.  Universities tend to operate in an annual rhythm which we call seasons– summer, fall, winter, spring.  We also identify geolocations, noting where the risk is likely to happen.  These features of risks provides us a timeframe, not all risks must be managed today. 

Our prompts also ask the question why, which defines the cause of the risk.  Sometimes, categorizing risks can help in assigning risks to other colleagues.  We use ten thematic areas.

The last identification step is noting if the risk is preventable, strategic or external. 

The analyzing step assesses the likelihood and potential impact of the risk. Analysis helps student affairs professionals prioritize and rank key risks for further evaluation and action.   Documenting the first two steps are usually effective for gathering the attention of stakeholders and beginning to move toward the remaining steps. This part of the process does NOT alleviate your stress, but it does provide the basic starting point for moving in that direction.  We begin moving toward ourselves and our institution toward resiliency.


In our evaluative step, we clarify how risks are reviewed by the administration, a procedure and feature often missing from most administrative processes.  Many risks, especially new and positive initiatives, fail to clarify the problem(s) that those initiatives will solve or fails to document how the newest and best idea(s) also creates challenges.  Once those issues are clarified, an institution can establish an approval process or in mindful terms, a pathway toward clarity.

The evaluate step in concert with previous steps empowers informed decision making to answer the most important question, should we take this risk?  This put the responsibility for “sense making” of each risk at the appropriate level.  Thoughtful consideration makes administrative decision making much easier and more predictable. Identifying the process also allows all stakeholders to see a roadmap to a good and informed decision in their own work.

Evaluation includes a conclusion as to if the risk is tolerable and can we address any concerns creatively and appropriately, which leads to step four: act.  With the conclusion of this step, we begin to lessen our anxiety (usually).


The act step methodically treats any given risk. The process identifies tactics to share or transfer risks and to importantly ensure insurance coverage.  The act step also aims to reduce the likelihood of a risk or the potential negative consequences.  Herein also lies the opportunity for a president, vice president, team or senior cabinet to avoid or accept the risk. Some risks an institution may choose not to take and other are aligned with the meaningful work we are asked to achieve.  For many student affairs professionals, we forget that we have the authority to say no to certain activities.  Saying no might not only reduce a risk, but also reduce your own stress level.

The purpose of act is to intentionally decide with full and thoughtful awareness. We are choosing to do what we can, as best we can.


Like any assessment process, risk management requires a periodic review to blend together the observation steps along with reviewing the results of the institution’s efforts to determine next steps and to achieve continuous improvements.  The cycle then continues, as does the need for our profession to continue to evolve.  Our challenge is schedule time to slow down the ever-crushing pace of our profession, to find moments and opportunities to reflect. 

Clearly, blending mindfulness with risk management is an uncommon mixology, but for me, it works.  It is a process of simplification in a complex world and once simplified, contextualized and proceduralized, we can delegate, do, and breathe.  Perhaps, achieving all at the same time.  Namaste.