Risk Perceptions in the Management of Student Organizations

Through involvement in organizations, student leaders are given the opportunity to learn, grow, and develop outside of the classroom environment. These experiences teach students how to interact in a group setting, how to engage in the community they belong to, and how to challenge the world around them. It is also through these experiences that students are exposed to new or different levels of risk. As the number of students participating in activities grows, so does the opportunity for student-related risk.

In 1993, the United Educators insurance company issued a briefing that reported court systems were beginning to place a higher amount of liability on universities and colleges for activities that occur at student organization sponsored events. As institutions examined risk management at all levels, some began looking toward proactive practices and student organization risk management became more visible.

A few years later, one event would bring this conversation into the national spotlight and be a catalyst for change. For nearly a century, Texas A&M University had maintained a tradition of raising a bonfire the night before its football team played the University of Texas–Austin. In the beginning, the annual bonfire was just a giant pile of scrap wood, but as the years went on, it grew into a 55-foot tiered structure of logs held together with steel cables. On Nov. 18, 1999, the campus tradition became a risk management nightmare when the structure came tumbling down, killing 12 students and injuring many others.

The bonfire incident has been instrumental in facilitating conversations about risk management at colleges and universities. Coordinated primarily by students, the bonfire tradition provided an example of why specific training and transition guides for student leaders are important. For instance, with the continuous change in student leadership, it is possible for student leaders to be ill equipped for some of the day-to-day roles needed to be a successful leader and risk manager. One area in particular is an overall perceived lack of consistency in student leaders being able to identify risk management practices within their respective student organizations. Although student leaders likely want to host and attend safe events, they may not know exactly what types of risk could occur outside of standard alcohol- and travel-related risks. Campuses have made progress in attending to risk management practices for student organizations since 1999. Therefore, it is helpful to understand the perceptions of risk that currently exist for student leaders, advisors, and university personnel. A recent multi-institutional study was undertaken to identify those perceptions.


For the study, five research questions were developed:

  1. How do student leaders, advisors, and university personnel identify the types of risk and barriers in the management of student organizations?
  2. Do role and campus setting have an interaction on risk perceptions in the management of student organizations? If not, are there statistically significant differences in the main effects of role and campus setting?
  3. Do role and campus size have an interaction on risk perceptions in the management of student organizations? If not, are there statistically significant differences in the main effects of role and campus size?
  4. Do role and campus setting have an interaction on perception of the university’s role in risk management of student organizations? If not, are there statistically significant differences in the main effects of role and campus setting?
  5. Do role and campus size have an interaction on perception of the university’s role in risk management of student organizations? If not, are there statistically significant differences in the main effects of role and campus size?

Each question focused on how students, advisors, and university personnel perceived the student organization risk management process. The questions also were aimed at revealing information on the campus environment. The idea was to see if the size of campus and size of community play a role in risk perceptions. From these questions, an electronic survey was created. The survey had four sections: demographics, risk scenarios, campus and community environment, and the role the university should play in risk management.

Respondents replied to statements using open-ended questions, multiple-choice answers, and through a matrix scale that was coded to a numerical scale (Strongly Disagree = 1, Disagree = 2, Somewhat Disagree = 3, Somewhat Agree = 4, Agree = 5, and Strongly Agree = 6). One additional matrix scale was used with the following meanings: None = 1, Negligible Risk = 2, Low = 3, Moderate = 4, Significant = 5, Catastrophic = 6, and NA = 7. For the study to collect each respondent’s personal opinion on what they believe to be the best answer for each question, the survey was designed to force the respondent to select a level of agreement. It is due to the importance of understanding each respondent’s perceptions that the survey did not provide any neutral options. The NA category was given as an option if the respondent believed the question did not apply to them.

Using the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, seven institutions located in different sized communities were selected for this study. All of the institutions used had a Carnegie classification of high or very high in research. In February 2016 (midway through the study), Carnegie revised the research identifiers so those included in the study were reassigned to a research level of higher or highest. Some of the institutions used changed Carnegie levels and that was taken into consideration when data was collected. Those surveyed included student leaders and direct advisors of student organizations as well as university personnel, described as any faculty or staff member with an official role in assisting student organizations on policies and procedures in higher education. Among such personnel were student activities office staff, legal counsel, safety office staff, Title IX officers, event services staff, and hall directors. For each of these groups, the student activities office at the respective institution identified who would qualify. Each office then provided the email addresses to the researcher, or provided the number of emails being sent on behalf of the researcher by the institution. Respondents were asked to indicate whether they were student leaders, advisors, or other personnel.

A quantitative analysis of the data was conducted, focusing on descriptive statistics as well as a two-way between-groups analysis of variance (ANOVA). The ANOVA testing was used to see if an interaction between the university and the campus setting and size was present. If no interaction was identified, the study looked at the major effects to see if significant differences were present.


Research Question 1
Student leaders, advisors, and university personnel were able to identify some of the five risks the National Center for Student Leadership detailed in its 2010 white paper Risk Management for Student Organization Advisors. Those were physical, reputational, emotional, financial, and facility risks. Of these, physical risk and emotional risk were the two most often stated. Physical risk is not surprising due to the amount of conversations most student activities offices have about topics such as travel, risk paperwork, and alcohol. Emotional risk is also important to identify; however, many of the responses that identified emotional risk revolved around bullying, lack of inclusion, and peer pressure. These types of risk are not addressed as often outside of hazing prevention messages. Financial risk to the student organization was the only risk type that had a statistically significant difference based on campus setting. In this case, participants at institutions in midsize cities indicated financial risk more frequently than did those at universities in large cities. Overall, facilities risk was the least frequently identified risk type among the five.

Among all respondents, it was interesting to see how many advisors and university personnel would provide vague statements or generalizations about defining risk. Without specifically identifying some of the types of risk present in student organizations, it can become more challenging for student leaders to grasp the scope of risk to be addressed.

This leads to the barriers present in risk management of student organizations. University forms and policies were identified most in the responses about barriers, followed by access to resources. For student groups, the amount of “hoops” provided can become a deterrent. Without a greater understanding of why the forms are important, students lose the educational opportunity of why they are filling them out in the first place; it becomes more of a checklist item to host an event. Once the process of getting the forms complete and complying with university policy, the barriers continue with access, according to the student participants.

Access to resources does not appear to be improving as states continually reduce state appropriations to higher education while simultaneously requiring a tuition freeze. With shrinking financial resources, student organizations will need to become more frugal with the financial resources they do have and look to other ways to raise funds. Space to host events is also a resource that is becoming more limited, according to respondents. Finding ways to plan sooner, or collaborate with other entities to pool resources, may be necessary to help mitigate some of these barriers.

Both the perception of risk and the barriers identified provide a foundation to the rest of the study. The information gathered provides a base for how student leaders, advisors, and university personnel identify what types of risk and barriers are present in student organization management. While all three groups—student leaders, advisors, and university personnel—perceived similar types of risk and barriers present, the level of severity to the organization and university was addressed in the remaining research questions.

Research Questions 2 & 3
In looking at the second and third research questions, it was clear that student organization leaders and advisors do not always recognize the level of risk in the same manner. In most cases where a significant difference was identified, it was that the student leader identified a lower level of risk than the advisor or university staff member did. Even though the results were statistically significant, the role or campus setting tended to have a minor effect on those perceptions. The only question for which size had a moderate effect size was student travel using personal vehicles. This was only for the influence that role had on risk perceptions. Again student leaders saw this type of risk as lower than did the advisors or university personnel. This difference has the ability to impede the risk mitigation process on campuses. Combined with the perceptions of inadequate training for both student leaders and advisors, along with limited resources and “too many” forms and polices, risk management at institutions has the potential to be unsuccessful. Guidance in the Risk Management Reader for Campus Activities Professionals reinforces this idea that for a risk management model to be effective it needs to be a comprehensive plan that is not piecemealed together. For student leaders and advisors to be effective in these leadership roles, better training tools need to be identified.

In looking at campus setting and size, again these demographics had a minor effect on perception and no moderate effects were identified. Individuals at institutions in smaller cities identified a lower level of support for student organizations than did those in remote areas, midsize cities, or large cities. Respondents from smaller locales also felt there were more barriers in student organization event planning than did those in other campus settings. In What Matters in College? Alexander Astin described the campus environment as the “characteristics of institutions, curriculum, faculty, residence and financial aid, and student peer groups,” and when put together this environment creates an experience for each student. This study revealed that while the campus environment and size do create an experience for each student, they do not significantly affect the perception of risk. 

Research Questions 4 & 5
The last two research questions focused on the role the university should play in the risk management process of student organizations. In this section, it was clear that student leaders perceived that their university should provide better support than did the university personnel. Advisors also perceived that better training was needed to help them become more successful. Both student leaders and university personnel did not see the same level of need for such training. The other area in this section that was significant was how barriers impacted student organizations. Student leaders perceived a higher level of barriers than did advisors and university personnel. From this, the level of training and support for student organizations was identified as an area in which student activities offices can still work to improve. The communication and expectations for why risk mitigation is in place is still perceived as subpar.

In looking at the role the university should play in risk management based on the campus size, the institutions in midsize cities had a lower level of agreement on support and training than those respondents from large cities. The institutions with a larger number of students, also indicated a larger number of staff members hired to assist the student groups. The resulting difference in perceived support could be due to this difference in number of staff members.

Implications for Practice

In addition to future research, student activities professionals also need to reevaluate the current processes used in risk management. This study provided data that indicates the messages are still being overlooked by some of the students and advisors. Furthermore, there need to be better ways to streamline the process so student organizations can gain event approval without having to replicate forms and get physical signatures from multiple people at multiple locations on campus. There also need to be ways to update event information without having to repeat the entire process each time. New types of technology may become available where forms could be completed electronically, allowing any stakeholder in the process to see in real time the form’s status in the process. It would also allow for annual event leaders to make minor changes and resubmit forms each year.

For now, student activities professionals can use this study to support minor changes. The first is to create better resources that explain the process to student organization leaders including what needs to be accomplished, the timeline for each step, where they can go for additional assistance, and reasons for risk management. These are all considerations each institution should continuously be communicating to better serve the student leaders and advisors on campus.

Student organizations provide many opportunities for student development. These groups can be active in both the campus community and the greater local community. Well-managed organizations can be an effective marketing tool for universities. However, they can also raise questions of risk and liability to the institution. This study focused on the current perceptions in risk management of student organizations. These perceptions can be used to assist in the mitigation process. While this study identified that campus setting and size play a minor role in how risk perceptions are formed, it revealed that an individual’s role at the institution has more influence on how risk is viewed and what level of risk is present. Most of the differences occurred between student leaders’ and advisors’ perceptions in regard to the perception of risk severity. Student activities professionals can use these perceptions to support stronger training programs for student organization leaders and advisors. Based upon the results of this current study, such training should focus less on what types of risk are present in hosting events and instead emphasize how the level of severity could be increased or decreased due to certain factors. This level of support for student organizations has the potential to reduce the risk and liability to the institutions.

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