The Evolving Portfolio of Risk in Higher Education

June 7, 2021

Between the shift to remote learning and mitigating the risks of COVID-19, higher education has had a tumultuous year. And with new risks emerging almost too regularly, retentions and limits are increasing, making obtaining coverage a challenge.

In a recent session at RIMS 2021, four higher education risk management specialists discussed six areas of risk that are shaping coverage trends for the higher education sector. The session’s speakers included: Courtney Curtis, assistant vice president, Risk Management & Resilience Planning, University of Chicago; Craig McAllister, executive director, Risk Management, University of Miami Risk Management; Susan Liden, director of Risk Services, Pacific Lutheran University; and Chauncey Fagler, executive director and chief risk officer, Florida College System Risk Management Consortium.

COVID-19’s Impact. COVID-19 is no longer the emerging risk — it’s the emerged risk. With vaccines now available to the general population, could this mean a return to the prior campus experience, or has it changed forever? Some of the experience will likely return, but colleges may have to reimagine their value in light of the last year. Some faculty members may challenge the traditional model after discovering they can teach remotely. If lectures continue online, risk managers need to ask how this impacts facilities and what a short-term decline in liabilities means for predicted future coverage.

After shifting to a remote learning model, many campuses are now dealing with litigation around student tuition and fee refunds. Students who haven’t had the same campus experience, but had to pay the same amount as they would have before the pandemic, are not seeing the same return on investment. For many campuses, defending these could be more costly than paying out the requested refunds.

COVID-19 has certainly changed liability risks for campuses between residences, sports programs and extracurricular activities. With on-campus testing and vaccine administration, medical professional liability coverage needs to be reevaluated for potential gaps. General coverage also needs to be reviewed for pandemic and communicable disease exclusions.

Vaccine Mandate and Registry. More than 190 campuses are now mandating COVID-19 vaccines for both students and faculty. While vaccine mandates are not new to higher education, this emergency mandate is unlike standard vaccine mandates. Could this requirement create legislation or barriers for those attempting to obtain a higher education? And what could potential legislation mean for mitigating the risks of COVID-19?

Additionally, study abroad programs need to be reevaluated for risks. With almost every country carrying a level 4 risk ranking, should students be allowed to study abroad? While the European Union is now accepting U.S. travelers, that does not lessen the risk. Risks change daily around COVID-19, and risk managers should be asking who bears the expense of a student catching COVID-19 while studying abroad.

Fiduciary Liability. Several campuses are receiving class action lawsuits regarding excessive fee claims. Decisions being made by fiduciaries are affecting participants’ long-term retirement accounts, thus shifting the higher education markets. Fiduciary liability coverage used to be a nominal expense with small retention, but it now requires extensive underwriting with retentions and limits increased due to litigation. Many colleges are trying to maintain the insurance and reduce the risks around it by adding in multiple layers of insurance.

Sexual Abuse and Molestation. Insurers are reevaluating the risk behind sexual abuse and molestation coverage options as new sexual abuse cases continue to rapidly emerge. Mandates and increased retentions are now necessary to keep coverage in place. Considerations need to be made to exposures, including changes in Title IX, interactions with minors on campus and extensive background checks for those interacting with minors. While there may have been a shift to virtual learning, exposures still exist, and policies should be extended, accompanied by more training and reporting.

Traumatic Brain Injury. About 230,000 individuals are hospitalized every year with traumatic brain injuries (TBIs). While TBIs range in severity, they can lead to long-term brain damage when ignored. TBIs have become a major focus for sports programs, with larger universities educating coaches and athletes on preventing and treating these injuries. Aside from training, mandates around reporting may be required by carriers with the increased risk. Finding a medical professional who is willing to work with sports teams may help reduce risks and provide knowledge and care for students. The panelists said that attention should also be paid to theater and dance programs as well as summer camps that also experience TBIs. They advised that active engagement with faculty dealing with accommodation programs can ensure a smooth transition for affected students returning to campus or returning to practice.

Societal Unrest. Issues affecting societal unrest, such as political differences and racial injustice, do not have to occur locally to be a risk to the campus. The risk is wide and varied, and decisions regarding these issues should be supported with facts and data. The session’s speakers advised that risk managers should ask what the institution’s position on freedom of speech is and how they can create a safe environment with open dialogue. Safety protocols need to be reevaluated around this issue, as it will continue to be an escalating risk, and rhetoric will only get louder. Remember to be consistent with the messaging of the community while also being fair and appropriate with views.

Reprinted with permission from Safety National Conference Chronicles.

Topics Training Development

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Insurance Journal West June 7, 2021
June 7, 2021
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