Embracing Risk: How Uncertainty Can Lead to Opportunity in Higher Ed Institutions

How Uncertainty Can Lead to Opportunity in Higher Ed Institutions.

We live in a global economy, where risk is unavoidable. Thus before us we have a choice: we can either ignore risk or we can use it to our advantage to create opportunity. I argue that we should embrace risk—not simply tolerate it, or live with it.

When asked what risk meant to our undergraduates, their responses ranged from extremely negative to neutral to positive. The most common words associated with risk were danger, loss, chance, uncertainty, reward, and opportunity. It is the last meaning I will focus on here—how can we view risk as an opportunity to improve ourselves? And more importantly, how can we improve the educational experience and environment for students?

Since I am a decision scientist by training, I will borrow a few principles from that discipline that deal with uncertainty.


Statisticians have other ways of expressing this same idea. Nate Silver refers to this as “Think Probabilistically.” Too often, we are overconfident in our decision-making and ignore the downside of risk. While we don’t want the downside to always deter us from taking risks, it is important to recognize it exists—and that its occurrence is possible.

A recent and well-known example of the consequences of not acknowledging risk is the economic crash of 2008. The economists were focused more on precision than accuracy. Although they argued that their models could be used with 95 percent accuracy, their track record in the years leading up to the crash was closer to 70 percent. In addition, they had been relying on false assumptions—mainly that the chances of individuals and businesses defaulting on loans were independent (not related), that the ratings from the organizations on mortgage-backed securities were accurate, and that home prices would continue to increase. The consequences of these mistaken assumptions were catastrophic: defaults on mortgages spread, the housing market collapsed, banks failed, and national and global GDP and exports were impacted.

"Our educational system must continue to evolve and be open to dramatically different styles and forms of learning."

While that is a dramatic example, we are better off if we don’t ignore risk—or the implicit assumptions we are using to make decisions. If we admit that we have limited knowledge, and instead seek to broaden our education and expand our perspectives, we will be better prepared for the downturns, if they do come. Admitting that we don’t have all the answers—and that learning is a life-long process and not a sign of weakness—is simply strategic. We live in a dynamic global environment that will continue to change. Therefore, our educational system must continue to evolve and be open to dramatically different styles and forms of learning. The impact of technology and accessibility to data will continue to act as disruptors, and as educators we need to continue to take initiative and be innovative. Our greatest challenge is to remind ourselves that we need to prepare for the unknown and unforeseen advances in learning.


Our institutions each have their own cultures and traditions. These combine to create a unique perspective—or lens—which we can use to view our own institutional risks and risk factors. Economists who examine the risk of an individual’s—or a group’s—risk for unemployment, foreclosure, bankruptcy, or poverty are accustomed to disaggregating the data to examine differences. Our mission, and perhaps our challenge, is to appreciate our institutional differences to understand what is feasibly attainable and to understand the size of the risk we are taking. Rather than being divisive, our differences can be used as a motivator for developing partnerships.

Whether we are drafting a mission statement, striving for accreditation, raising funds, or implementing new programs, the value of partnerships and collaboration cannot be overestimated. As many institutions have discovered, both domestic and global partnerships can be effective for diversifying our student population, enhancing our brand, and expanding our global curriculum. One strength of partnerships is that they can help alleviate the downside of risk. Although institutional partnerships can be challenging, and involve strategic compromises, the upside is that they enable us to truly appreciate the value of synergy—which statistically speaking results in a reduction of variability and accomplishes far more than a single institution with fewer resources.

I am fortunate to be surrounded by a strong, dedicated team that is solely focused on our mission of improving curricular and co-curricular opportunities for students. We are continuously experimenting, exploring, and debating new ideas. We are entrepreneurial by training and by nature and we understand that in the ever-changing world of higher education, we cannot stand still. The financial, environmental, and global pressures and trends in higher education are constantly moving. We believe that innovation lies at the intersection of experiential learning, service learning, and global learning (see figure below), so that is where we have focused our energy. Within the last six years, we have worked together with faculty and alumni to launch programs in Barcelona, Hong Kong, Nicaragua, and Peru—and the newest programs represent unique collaborations with other parts of the university. We hope to expand our Global Social Internship (GSI) program in Central America by finding synergies with the Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation, and our Global Business Fellows (GBF) program hopes to grow to meet new demand from all university students for a broader skillset. We continue to experiment with our one-credit internship courses, our module-type courses worth one and a half credits, and our two-credit innovative consulting course called the Global Business Experience (GBE) to provide alternative learning models.


A famous scholar named George Box once said that statisticians and artists have something in common: we both have a bad habit of falling in love with our models. This is a natural human tendency. Once we have put the effort and energy into developing a complicated model of reality, we want to believe it is real—and we are resistant to update the model based on new information. Over time, as we gather new data, our perspectives change, and we learn from others. Therefore we need to learn to revisit and revise our models—whether these are strategic models, resource or funding models, or curricular models. Not only is it acceptable to be flexible and adapt over time to changes in strategy, it is preferable.

From a curricular perspective, we must continuously revisit our students’ expectations, demands, and needs. As the worldwide access to digital learning improves, the collaboration with global institutions increases, and costs of education soar, we owe it to all of our constituencies to explore alternative models of education. Whether we refer to these new methods as distance learning, flipped classrooms, internships, apprenticeships, project-based learning, or experiential learning, continual revitalization of the educational experience for our students is a necessity. Our accrediting organizations expect it, our alumni expect it, and our students deserve it.

Norean R. Sharpe is senior associate dean and director of undergraduate programs at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University. This article is based on her TEDx talk delivered on October 24, 2015.