Feature

A Playbook for Risk Management

A case study in managing risk at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, where existing structures helped the international office navigate the pandemic—and provide new flexibility going forward.
Intentional efforts by the UMass Amherst international office to create structures for risk management helped staff respond to and plan for an emergency response and ongoing uncertainty over the past year. Photo: Shutterstock
 
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In early 2020, the first inklings that the COVID-19 pandemic would pose serious challenges for international education at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst (UMass Amherst) came not from program staff in the international office, but from international students.

“Some of our Chinese students, and students from Wuhan in particular…would come to our office and ask us what we thought was going to happen, like they were trying to get our attention,” recalls Kenneth Reade, MA, the university’s director of international student and scholar services. As he states in UMass Amherst’s 2019–2020 Global Report, “At that point, no one grasped the gravity of the whole thing.”

The rapid pace at which the pandemic disrupted international programming took virtually every institution by surprise. As COVID-19 reached a crisis stage last March, UMass Amherst faced yet another unanticipated challenge as it worked to bring back more than 760 students studying abroad. Its director of international health, safety, and security had gone on maternity leave at the end of February, and the new director of education abroad programs had just arrived at the institution in the fall. 

“It tested our systems and our ability to follow through,” says Kalpen Trivedi, PhD, associate provost for international programs.

As was the case at many colleges and universities, intentional efforts by the UMass Amherst international office to create structures for risk management helped staff respond to and plan for an emergency response and ongoing uncertainty over the past year. This proactive approach to risk management has also reaped benefits as the pandemic continues: UMass Amherst was one of a relatively small number of U.S. institutions to send students abroad in both the fall and spring semesters of the current academic year. This decision, empowered by a sophisticated approach to assessing risk, broadened potential options for students—and also shifted some of the responsibility to them. 

“No one in the field had this in their playbook. There were great policies in place, but you couldn’t turn to the chapter on global pandemics because it didn’t exist.” —Mark Eckman

The strategies the international office employed in previous times of crisis, during efforts to respond to the pandemic in spring 2020, and as challenges continue into the current academic year illustrate how proactive risk management plans can be operationalized during unanticipated crises. 

“No one in the field had this in their playbook,” says Mark Eckman, MEd, director of education abroad. “There were great policies in place, but you couldn’t turn to the chapter on global pandemics because it didn’t exist.”

Three Building Blocks of a Strong Risk Management Foundation

As a larger institution, UMass Amherst has some inherent advantages in developing an effective risk management strategy, Trivedi says. Among them is a full-time international health and safety position—a luxury not all programs can afford—which has been held by Andrea Drake, MEd, since 2014. Even without a dedicated health and safety professional, international education leaders can engage in intentional, multiyear efforts to “build holistic systems around risk management,” Trivedi says. He offers the following three tips:  

Broaden the scope of risk management. 

Along with study abroad and faculty and staff travel, the office framed risk management “more broadly around the entire international enterprise,” Trivedi says. Leaders emphasized—within the office and across the institution—the importance of research compliance, including export controls and compliance with the Office of Foreign Assets Control and other regulations, as well as overall preparation for institutional financial risk, reputational risk, and insurance issues.

Collaborate across departments on risk management policy and planning. 

Chaired by Trivedi, the international risk management committee at UMass Amherst includes representatives from a wide range of departments and offices: the general counsel, dean of students, campus life staff, the associate chancellor of compliance, the UMass system’s insurance analyst, the institutional director of environmental health and safety, the campus police department, and the research compliance office. Faculty members who participate in international programs and research, particularly in locations deemed higher risk, also are represented on the committee.

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Football play written in chalk on a board
Preparing for multiple scenarios in advance helps risk management teams determine the best way to move forward when a crisis arises. Photo: Shutterstock

Along with defining policies and establishing guidelines for the institution as a whole, the committee allows international office staff to develop and test contingency plans with peers across multiple departments. “It gives us a 360-degree view of what can be problematic on the horizon, and it gives us a great set of individuals to work with to do periodic tabletop exercises to put into place emergency response plans,” Trivedi says. (Read more about how to build a risk management team from the ground up.)

Share responsibilities. 

Even though Drake is the office’s full-time international health and safety professional, risk management responsibilities fall across multiple members of the international office, who collaborate frequently on procedures and issues as they arise. “Even though I hold the title, it’s a completely team-based approach,” Drake says. “We each bring a different perspective to risk based on our experiences.”

“Even though I hold the title, it’s a completely team-based approach. We each bring a different perspective to risk based on our experiences.” —Andrea Drake

It is important for international offices to build these foundations before a crisis occurs, according to Eckman. “There were competing priorities in times of relative quiet about what we were going to focus on,” he says. “The structures we rely upon in terms of building policy and the lines of communication between the campus hierarchy, our committee structure, and decisionmakers in the international program office took a lot of hard work.” 

A Recipe for Rapid Response

Like most institutions, UMass Amherst did not have a pandemic response playbook to draw from as it was forced to operationalize risk management practices with unprecedented speed in spring 2020. However, collaboration with other departments during another health crisis—an on-campus meningitis outbreak in fall 2017—served its leaders well as risk management policies and priorities met the reality of immediate operational challenges.

“Being nimble and flexible was really important,” Drake says, and UMass Amherst had several practices in place to successfully weather the crisis:

Implement a systems approach to prioritize the response. 

With students studying abroad in more than 150 different programs as the pandemic hit, staff capacity in addressing needs was constrained. “That’s a lot of different accommodations that needed to be made, and even when one solution applied to 12 or 15 or 20 programs, there was still quite a lot of variability,” Eckman says.

Given the complexity of managing solutions for these disparate programs and settings, the first step to taking a systems approach was making it clear that “students needed to come home,” Eckman says. Concerns about academic and financial standing due to the disruption of programs being cut short were identified as issues that could be addressed internally as the semester progressed, allowing the institution to stress that all participants needed to return to the United States before these questions were resolved.

“Academic and financial questions would be answered later.…We just needed to get them on a plane,” Eckman says.

Communicate. 

As part of its COVID-19 crisis response, the office took a similar systems approach to communicating with students and parents by identifying common themes and questions from emails and calls and synthesizing them into daily email messages. Doing so allowed the staff to iterate and tailor these messages for different populations—students in programs in different countries and their parents, for example.

The systems approach also better equipped the international office to communicate plans with other campus departments, outlining specific details so other staff could respond if students, parents, or other stakeholders reached out to them with questions.

Apply lessons learned from previous efforts. 

Decisions to recall students in study abroad programs came to a crisis point over spring break, as UMass Amherst administrators weighed decisions about whether to suspend in-person instruction for all students. 

“In the heat of the moment, we were not being second guessed or having to go back and get authorizations. If we didn’t have the confidence from other units and management...that would have been problematic.” —Kalpen Trivedi

“The campus decisionmakers were overwhelmed,” Trivedi says. “As we were thinking about our little piece of international education, they were thinking about the entire campus and the semester, [and asking,] ‘Are we going back or working remotely?’ Everyone’s bandwidth was stretched.”

The office’s previous efforts to build cross-departmental structures and understanding of international risk management allowed the office to move quickly despite the broader disruptions. 

“In the heat of the moment, we were not being second guessed or having to go back and get authorizations,” Trivedi explains. “If we didn’t have the confidence from other units and management to say, ‘You’re managing it fine,’ that would have been problematic.”

Strategies for Flexibility

While UMass Amherst has resumed study abroad programs during the 2020–21 school year, the realities of the ongoing pandemic have resulted in much smaller cohorts of outbound students than usual.  

“It was a heavier lift getting 50 students out this spring than 750 in the past,” Trivedi says. 

The pandemic also has shifted the calculus on risk for the institution and its students. For example, programs could be disrupted in multiple ways—border closures or other travel restrictions while campuses remain open, host institutions abruptly shifting their own classes and programs online, or limited options for remote learning or asynchronous programming if students are required to return home.

UMass Amherst has anticipated changes by adjusting its approach to managing risk in three important ways that increase flexibility in the face of a changed landscape for international programs:

Create a risk matrix for international travel

The U.S. Department of State and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offer travel guidance, which has to date informed most programming decisions at U.S. institutions. In addition to these trusted sites, UMass Amherst now evaluates a broader range of sources to determine risk in ways that have opened the door for international travel to some places the top-line data suggest should be avoided. Among the additional sources are the World Health Organization assessments on whether host countries have the capacity to address the pandemic, daily metrics on case rates, and information on local lockdowns and other policy measures from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.

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football play written in chalk on a chalkboard
Creating structures, then adapting when needed, is a key to successful risk management. Photo: Shutterstock

For example, the risk matrix allowed international program staff to consider Denmark—discouraged by CDC and State Department advisories, but made feasible by low daily positive case rates and high ratings for capacity and efficiency of care from other sources. Although Denmark has since closed its borders to international students, some UMass Amherst students have started virtual programs in the hopes of traveling to the country later in the spring semester. “It’s an example of having these students being flexible in making plans,” Drake says. 

Shift the responsibility of risk management to students—and prepare them for the added accountability. 

A focus that will likely continue going forward is ensuring that students are aware of the risks involved in study abroad and take on a greater share of the responsibility for potential disruptions. 

“We’ve been much more upfront about how [their experience] could play out and where the UMass responsibility begins, where it ends, and where students’ own responsibility kicks in, in terms of assuming risks.” Eckman says. 

Doing so involves a more intensive look at risk during predeparture programming, which has shifted to virtual sessions. The traditional focus of programming—things to think about before going abroad, while abroad, and upon return—has been supplemented with specifics about current challenges, including details about quarantine expectations in different host countries. And while students have always been encouraged to plan a “fallback option,” this year they have been required to register for courses in Amherst and drop them once they are certain their abroad program will take place. 

“It’s a level of detail and scenario planning and in-depth advising we wouldn’t ordinarily do because we haven’t had to in the past,” Eckman says. 

The office also worked with the university’s general counsel office to update its acknowledgement of risk forms to specify that students “realize they are assuming a greater amount of risk than usual and have been briefed on the possibilities,” Trivedi says.

Have full understanding of the risk management policies of providers—and consider their capacity to manage a portfolio of partners. 

Partners’ risk management practices have become critical given current conditions. “Understand the policies and protocols put into place to support students,” Drake says. “We worked hard on that before, and now it’s become even more important.”

This added level of due diligence has also informed decisions about UMass Amherst’s capacity to manage large numbers of provider programs. “As we’ve looked at the immediate moment, we’ve made difficult decisions about how open our portfolio of programs can be in this environment,” Eckman says. “We’ve looked to our partners with the strongest relations and highest degrees of confidence on what proactive measures they’ve put in place to meet our expectations of the overall experience of our students.”

Together, these factors account for what Eckman calls a “trinity of adjectives” for evaluating programs from a risk management perspective:

  • Available: Are host institutions offering programs?
  • Accessible: Can students travel to the host country? As mentioned above, Denmark is an example of where programs are available and the metrics are promising, but the country is not currently open to international students.
  • Permissible: Does the international office feel comfortable with the provider and the student to move forward?

“If we can tick all three of those boxes, we can move forward,” Eckman says. “Each one is a complex question.”

It is vital to support these decisions with data, he adds. “It can’t be a carry forward. If you only have the capacity to make data-informed decisions about five programs, you run a five-program portfolio. If you can for 200 programs, do that. Be realistic about what institutional infrastructure and office resources you have to make sure you don’t get overextended.”

Lessons Learned and Looking Ahead

UMass Amherst leaders anticipate this new approach to risk management will persist beyond the current year. “We will continue to operate a more limited portfolio of programs and destinations so that we can continue to do the due diligence and student-level advising and only slowly open things back up as certainty returns,” Trivedi says. 

The institution also will leverage its committee structures and cross-departmental tabletop planning exercises to refine emergency response plans going forward. Trivedi hopes to eventually carry through on long-standing plans to add a second full-time position focused on international risk management.

Certainty, of course, is all but absent in the risk management world. But strong cross-departmental structures that support all types of international programming represent a foundation that can help make institutions more resilient. At the same time, it is also important to focus on less tangible elements—like trust, honesty, and transparency—to ensure these structures are effective in practice. 

“You need to build the confidence and the relationships during noncrisis times so you have the agency to operate during a crisis,” Trivedi says. “Cultivate key allies and do it throughout the course of the year so when you need to call on their expertise, they’re available.”  •

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