Global risk: universities need to be better prepared
“From terrorism to transnational crime, epidemics to extortion, censorship to cyber security, there has never been a more dangerous time to venture abroad”
Brett Bruen is a former director of global engagement at the White House and US diplomat, and is now president of the consulting firm the Global Situation Room. Here he writes about why universities should take the risks of travelling seriously so they can better protect their students and staff overseas.
The murder of American student Nohemi Gonzalez, during the terrorist attacks in Paris last fall, was a tragic reminder of the risks of studying and researching abroad today. Sadly, those risks are no longer remote. Indeed, they’re regular and rising. From terrorism to transnational crime, epidemics to extortion, censorship to cyber security, there has never been a more dangerous time to venture abroad. Unfortunately, the response by most universities to these threats remains woefully outdated and inadequate.
As a diplomat serving at embassies overseas, I would often encounter American students and scholars who had managed to get themselves into some rather challenging situations. The stories were often similar. They had got caught up in the adventure of being overseas. They trusted the wrong person or went to the wrong place. I wondered why there is not a better system for preparing and protecting them. When I left the White House last summer, I started asking this question of some leading schools and groups working on international education. The responses I received were shocking.
“They’ll let us know if we need to be concerned.” Many schools rely on a partner institution to keep them informed about developments in the country. There are several issues with this approach. First, study abroad programs represent a significant revenue stream for foreign universities. They will be reluctant to put it in danger without being confronted with a clear and present danger to the participants in their program. Second, their capacity to assess risk varies widely and most lack the requisite expertise. Finally, many of these emerging trends require a comparative approach and are often difficult to identify from within the country. Indeed, the most serious risks may come from beyond their borders.
“Many of these emerging trends require a comparative approach and are often difficult to identify from within the country”
“We already get the updates.” I was surprised to learn how many universities told me they rely almost exclusively on consular reports from the government. These are not designed to provide comprehensive safety information. Instead, they flag general issues to be aware of and provide common sense suggestions for relatively inexperienced travelers. The time, type of travel, and topics students and scholars are involved with are quite different from the typical traveler. Indeed, consular updates don’t cover one of their most significant risks overseas: researching sensitive subjects that could offend governments or particular groups.
“We have the people who can do it.” Universities depend far too much on their own staff and professors to provide guidance on political, security, social, and health developments. Studying the sociology or history of a country is far different than analyzing emerging threats. Would we ask them to manage such responsibilities at home? When the greatest risk was an occasional pickpocketer or scam artist, perhaps it wasn’t as necessary. Yet, governments, businesses, and international organizations now all depend on experts to advise them on their exposure to global risks. Why should universities be different?
“What can we do?” We live in a different world than we did several years ago. The frequency and complexity of today’s international threats means this work can no longer be effectively covered in-house. Universities need to be thinking about conducting regular, professional, and independent risk assessments of their global programs. Just as they have taken proactive steps to reduce risk to cyber security or security issues on campus, so to do they need to take more aggressive steps to protect themselves, their students, and their scholars abroad.
“Just as universities have taken steps to reduce risk to cyber security or security issues on campus, so to do they need to take more aggressive steps to protect students and scholars abroad”
“What does an effective risk assessment entail?” You first map the people and places involved in your program. Where are their inherent vulnerabilities? From natural disasters to health risks, these are often familiar issues. Then look at what are exogenous factors that could have an impact. They could be trends in neighboring countries that may soon spill over. Perhaps within the country there is political or social tension simmering below the surface. This information gets then gets mapped, assessments are made of the probability of various scenarios, and recommendations made for actions that can mitigate those vulnerabilities.
Part of the risk assessment process involves building relationships with individuals and institutions in a position to provide early warning of emerging issues. These contacts can also help to defuse potential problems ahead of time, such as a government or group taking offense to research that is being conducted. By delving deeper into a society, they also can provide valuable insights that can enhance research, study abroad experiences, and partnership possibilities. In short, risk assessments aren’t just a preventative measure. They can play an important role in helping universities proactively pursue new possibilities overseas.
By no means do I want to suggest that universities should conduct fewer international programs. They just need to be smarter about how they do them. This starts by getting serious about understanding the real risks that exist in the world today. By bringing in experts to analyze program environments abroad, universities can answer affirmatively to the most common and challenging question posed by parents: “Are you doing everything you can to keep my child safe?” Yet, taking these steps will not only reassure students, parents, and insurers. They can reduce and remove some of the greatest threats so that international programs can survive and even thrive in uncertain times.