Liability issues have encouraged or, in some cases, forced international educators to draw up crisis management protocols and begin the task of assessing the risks inherent in all their international programmes. No one expects international educators to be lawyers, yet we are increasingly being held responsible for understanding the legal consequences of poor implementation of a crisis management strategy. Are we taking unnecessary risks that could backfire on the health and safety of our faculty, staff and students?
Increasing numbers of lawsuits
At present, there is a lack of clear, minimum operating standards that would allow study abroad professionals not only to support and work toward greater safety for their faculty, staff and students, but also to limit the liability their institutions could face. Study abroad lawsuits abound in the USA and we are beginning to see them arise in Europe as well. Lawyers call them ‘educational malpractice’ lawsuits.
One of the first steps in implementing risk assessment is to get a good understanding of the issues facing the field today. NAFSA’s Region XI Risk Assessment and Risk Management Task Force began the task of trying to establish a database of study abroad incidents, and The Forum on Education Abroad took that over and opened up the database to institutions across the USA. Is it time we do the same thing for Europe?
Importance of risk management
Risk management will most definitely increase the probability of success and, because of the strategic planning that it mandates, it will also reduce the impact of crises that arise. The international activities of the institution will benefit from this additional sustainable value. When risk management is done properly, the end result will be a set of organisational structures and policies that will improve the overall delivery of all aspects of the institution’s international education offerings – and not just in times of crisis. It is therefore imperative for international educators to integrate risk analysis and then risk management into the crisis management planning of their offices.
When crisis management saved the day
While working for a small, private university, I set up a crisis management protocol that covered how to handle an emergency overseas that might force the students who were studying abroad to return home and resume classes either online, by independent study or by being absorbed into an already ongoing class on campus. When the USA invaded Iraq, American students (and American citizens in general) felt uneasy about being targeted no matter where they were in the world. Many of them had parents who wanted them to return to the US. My crisis management plan required us to make immediate calls to the host universities or programme providers, as well as to local overseas embassies and consulates, to determine what plans they had in place to protect the students and whether they felt the threat to be real or perceived. While I spoke to the partners (universities, consulates, and study abroad providers), my secretary followed our protocol of describing to anxious parents what we were doing to obtain the latest information, what our local partners were telling us and how we were counselling our students. Again, according to our protocol, we phoned every parent once a day to keep them updated and we instructed the students to call their parents every day as well as to check in with us (via e-mail or phone). As a result, there was no parental panic and the students were reassured by our local overseas partners that they would be supervised very carefully and that an evacuation plan was in place to get them home should the situation become more dangerous. None of our students returned home early; they all finished their overseas semesters in a timely fashion.
Has your institution been involved in a crisis with regards to international students and how did you handle it? This blog post aims to be a shared clearinghouse for issues facing study abroad administrators. How can we gauge the risks inherent in programmes we organise? How can we mitigate those risks?
By Regine Lambrech, International Education Consulting, CT, USA