Higher Education: Sidestepping Cornell University's Slippery Slope
Remember that "Just Say No" mantra from the 1980s? Allen Bova believes that always saying "no" to student activity leaders can set a dangerous precedent. "If you always say 'no,' they're going to go around you," says the director of risk management and insurance at Cornell University.
Bova should know. He has handled the risk assignment at the Ithaca, N.Y., school since 1988, starting out as an insurance analyst and eventually moving into his current role.
To illustrate his point, at a recent University Risk Management and Insurance Association regional meeting, Bova showed excerpts from the Capital One commercial that features actor David Spade always saying "no" to customers who want to cash in points. In a follow-up spot, an angry customer tries to beat up the customer service rep who's always telling him "no."
"He's the student activities person who want to beat up the risk management guy because we always say, 'No, that's too risky,'" he says. "That's because, to a large degree, we've become sensitized to it."
Which is why he has developed an open relationship with the university's student activities office. "You must communicate with the student activities office because if they're not telling you what's going on, you can't do your job," he says. And his job is to manage the risk to reduce the university's exposure, not to automatically say "no" to any student activity request.
He employed that strategy to reduce the risk associated with the school's infamous Slope Day, which had evolved from a benign spring celebration into a drunken free-for-all, with students of all ages getting wasted on hard liquor and then too many ending up at the hospital or infirmary emergency rooms.
To control the frenzy, Cornell has fenced in the hill where the bacchanalia takes place, which leads from West Campus to the libraries and the quadrangle of the College of Arts and Sciences--fondly called Libe Slope--allowing in only Cornell students and their guests. The university sells beer to the students who have been age-screened, and have been issued bracelets to limit how many beers they can buy.
Food and free water are readily available, and hundreds of student and staff volunteers patrol the area, checking on the status of any student who may have gotten a head start on the celebration--behavior known as "pre-gaming"--and should be cut off, or may be in need of medical attention.
For Bova, the trade-off of selling beer "was a choice between harm reduction and increased exposure, but we're in a better position legally, because we've acted responsibly in how we've managed the event." There have been no major claims.
Bova, an admitted "glass half-full" kind of guy, believes in "getting out there and touching the risk. Our business is to be nosy." He's positioned the risk management office as a resource for the entire university. "The one thing I'm most proud of is the culture of the institution. Most people think of risk management when they're planning a program," he says. "They aren't afraid to pick up the phone because they know they can call us and get sound advice." And the odds are Bova won't say no.
September 1, 2005
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