Allen Bova never expected to see his picture on the front page of Cornell University's student newspaper, let alone under the headline, "The Day the Music Died." But that's what happened when the risk management director cancelled the band for 1995's version of Slope Day, the traditional last-day-of-classes student drunken blowout that had just gotten out of hand over the years.
After all, the popular MTV cable station was promoting it as one of the best college parties in the United States, so he had to do something to stem the onslaught of thousands of young men and women from all corners of the country pouring into Cornell's Ithaca, N.Y., campus, all intent on drinking themselves into oblivion.
"I was trying to at least discourage people from flying in, but the students still showed up," he recalls. "There were probably 8,000 students on two city blocks of green space. It was a risk manager's nightmare." Indeed, even without the live music, the students partied from dawn to dusk. Hard liquor was the drink of choice, and the kids got so hammered that the local hospital emergency room and school health center just couldn't handle the influx, so more mattresses had to be brought in to accommodate all the no-longer-walking wounded.
Little did Bova know that 10 years later he would be calling Slope Day "probably the best controlled event we've ever had."
Student binge drinking is just one of the major issues colleges and universities grapple with, as college administrators look for studies, search Web sites and track down organizations with proven programs that might keep their students safe and reduce their employer's liabilities. As schools are learning, it's a matter of changing the culture that fosters binge drinking, and turning around students' "Animal House" expectations of the college campus.
At the same time, more students than ever are showing up on campus suffering from diagnosed clinical depression and taking medications to ease their pain. Some have labeled today's students the "Prozac Generation."
According to Janice Abraham, president and chief executive of United Educators in Chevy Chase, Md., over the past five years the percentage of students entering colleges with clinical depression has jumped by 40 percent, to 14 percent of students from 10 percent. It used to run a mere 2 percent to 3 percent, she says. Nearly half, 40 percent, of the students diagnosed with depression take medications.
"The percentage of students on medications has risen dramatically over the last two to three years compared with 10 years ago," says John Watson, executive director of the higher-education practice group at broker Arthur J. Gallagher in Los Angeles. "Most college counseling centers are grossly overwhelmed and understaffed with the demand for services," he says.
"It's a major issue on virtually every college campus," says Abraham of United Educators, a risk retention group owned by more than 1,200 schools, colleges and universities.
Some students, unfortunately, have chosen to forego the counseling services and have taken their own lives. Suicide, which continues to haunt many campuses, is still the second leading cause of death among college students. The Jed Foundation, a nonprofit organization committed to reducing the suicide rate among young adults, predicts that nearly 1,100 suicides will happen on campuses this year--a sobering statistic.
IN LOCO PARENTIS RETURNS
Meanwhile--perhaps reminiscent of that scene from The Shining when Jack Nicholson pops his head through the hacked-up door and announces, "I'm ba-a-a-ack!"--today's higher-education risk managers are confronted with a return of the in loco parentis--meaning "in the place of parents." Ironically, the parents of today's students fought to overthrow the concept in the 1960s and 1970s when they were students.
Anne Mulholland, director of Aon's Higher Education Alliance in Cincinnati, calls today's baby-boomer parents "helicopter parents" because they tend to hover over their children--and file lawsuits when they don't like what they see.
"These parents may attempt to intercede with professors and administration over poor grades, discipline issues and the like," she says. Complicating matters more, "for $50 grand a year, they expect their kids back in perfect shape," and when their kids get hurt from abusing drugs and alcohol, or commit suicide or just get themselves in trouble, the parents blame the school regardless of its liability. A prime example is the now widely known pending $27-million wrongful-death lawsuit filed by the parents of Elizabeth Shin, an MIT student who committed suicide in 2000.
"Expectations of society are shifting," says Abraham. It's a matter of defining where the responsibility lies, which is not always easy. Mark C. Reed, associate vice president and dean of students at Fairfield University, a Jesuit school in Fairfield, Conn., writes in this year's freshman orientation letter to the class-of-2009 students and parents that even though "appropriate parental involvement and support is essential to the success students will have, there is also the concern about parental involvement which absolves a student from accountability or responsibility for his or her actions or educational decisions ?"
For Reed, the shifting of in loco parentis presents an opportunity for parents and students to discuss how to handle the transition to college, the "letting go" of one another. It's not necessarily a question of who shoulders the most risk.
While some seemingly "standard" risks still cause angst, risk managers today are also confronted with a dizzying array of emerging risks that affect not only the students, but also their employees, faculty and their very institutions. From the smallest private liberal arts schools to the largest research universities, just figuring what insurance you need might be the simplest task.
"Since Sarbanes-Oxley, we've done more studies for colleges and universities," says Mulholland of Aon. "Their boards are made up of business executives who take institutional governance just as seriously," she says.
CLINICAL TRIALS AND INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY RIGHTS
For clinical trials, for example, which study new drugs or treatments with human subjects, Mulholland points out, "Some (institutions) don't recognize that the medical center is covered by the hospital's insurance policy, but they're not covered if the study is being run by the biology department and the subjects are never defined as patients."
That's just part of the problem. Clinical trials have emerged as probably the riskiest endeavors going on at the largest university research institutions, especially over the past five years, following two highly publicized deaths that occurred during the studies--one at the University of Pennsylvania and one at Johns Hopkins University.
As a result, the Food and Drug Administration has come down hard, demanding more stringent protocols and oversight. "The key with these new guidelines is to protect and safeguard the patients," says John R. Washlick, health law attorney with Cozen O'Connor's Philadelphia office. From the university's point of view, "clinical trials are where our greatest exposure lies," says
Steve Holland, director of risk management and safety at the University of Arizona in Tucson, pointing out that there are many different risks associated with the studies because several different players could be involved, including the researcher, the drug company and the patients.
"The growing issue is how you assign responsibility in an equitable way that both serves the public good while protecting the interests of the participants. That can sometimes be in conflict," he says, noting that a publicly funded university has to use tax dollars for the "greater good of society."
It's certainly putting more pressure on risk managers to keep in close contact with the university's director of sponsored programs, usually the office that oversees clinical trials, and make sure that insurance coverage is adequate.
In many cases, Aon's Mulholland points out, medical centers can look to their pharmaceutical-company partners to indemnify them for their insurance coverage, so there may be no need for the school to buy insurance for clinical trials. But institutions do need to be able to withstand any scrutiny of their study protocols and procedures, anything that can damage a school's ability to attract more research grants.
"Reputation becomes a real critical area for a university," says Jean Demchak, managing director and leader of the higher-education practice at Marsh in Hartford, Conn. That's why institutions are making sure their institutional review boards, which are charged with overseeing every clinical trial protocol and procedure, are up to snuff and conform with regulatory guidelines. "You can have 300 to 400 trials going on at one time, so the bigger risk can be who's tracking them," says Washlick of Cozen O'Connor. In addition, informed consent procedures must be extremely thorough and contracts carefully drawn up to protect everyone involved.
How contracts are written is also critical when determining who owns what with intellectual property rights issues, which is what a clinical trial may evolve into as part of a university's technology transfer protocol. "At the onset you have to establish who is contributing what, who owns what, who's responsible for each issue, who's participating and how you balance what each of those is worth--the money and the idea," says Mike Schraer, vice president and not-for-profit product manager at Chubb in Warren, N.J. "It becomes a moving target, depending on the institution," says Marsh's Demchak.
There's just too much money to be made when a researcher's study uses a school's lab to develop the newest technological advance. "In the old days, when a professor wrote a book on his research, nobody cared because there wasn't a lot of money to be gained on that," says Demchak. "But now, universities are saying, 'You used our facilities to develop this,'" and they want their piece of the pie, she says, spawning litigation over who owns those rights--the tenured professor and his thought process, the university where he worked or the company that put up the money.
And, of course, it always comes down to the money, and that's why universities are paying closer attention to retaliatory lawsuits, which cost universities far more than the discrimination claims that gave rise to them to begin with.
"Retaliation suits have consistently been the fastest growing category over the past five years," says Jeff Chasen, chief operating officer of The AGOS Group, a risk management consulting firm based in Tulsa, Okla. "Verdicts have been almost limitless, in the hundreds of thousands of dollars," he adds. In fact, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission lists literally hundreds of retaliation suits it has resolved, many with multimillion-dollar settlements. It may be difficult to prove sex or age discrimination, but retaliation is usually pretty clear-cut.
For example, the employee who filed the discrimination suit might be passed over for a promotion, may receive a less-than-favorable raise, may be excluded from networking lunches or even fired. "Juries don't like retaliatory claims and tend to react negatively to them," says Abraham of United Educators, noting that the company has paid out a seven-figure retaliatory claim.
As Chasen puts it, juries can "split the baby. They're willing to find the employer guilty of retaliation rather than outright discrimination or harassment." It's a very expensive lesson for actions that Abraham says are "100 percent preventable." For starters, training guides for managers and supervisors should be standard, as should nonretaliatory policies along with discrimination policies. "The human resources department should be telling people that if they feel this way, (angry about a discrimination claim) they should come forward instead of letting it fester," says Abraham.
For that matter, it's never a good idea to let any campus issue fester without letting risk management taking a shot at it. Because you never know where the next exposure will emerge from?better go answer your phone.
SUSAN GUREVITZ is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer.
September 1, 2005
Copyright 2005© LRP Publications