Inside Risk: Steve Kenny, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Steve Kenny, Director of Risk Management Services for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, discusses the unique risks associated with his school.

By Eric Gilkey

Q. Talk about your career and how you came to work in risk management and for the University of North Carolina.

A. I started adjusting insurance claims for The Hartford right after college. This wasn’t my chosen career path, I just needed a job. It turned out to be great experience; there’s no better way to learn the insurance industry than to be on the front line adjusting claims. Working with our large accounts that had complex risk exposures piqued my interest for the risk management profession. I was very fortunate to come to work at Carolina, my alma mater. And I owe this good fortune to a boss who was willing to take a chance on a candidate with only claims experience.

Q. What is your day-to-day life like as Director of Risk Management Services?

A. I spend a lot of time just directing traffic. Our university is comprised of hundreds of individual business operations, each with their own unique risks. We’re too complex for any one person to know everything about the school’s risks. We have many people who are risk experts in their respective areas. I try to find the expert who can help solve the problem.

Q. What is your overall approach to risk management?

A. By our very nature, we take on a great deal of risk. Our reach is global, we’re on the cutting edge of research and discovery, and we teach impressionable young adults away from home for the first time in their lives. So risk management can’t be about saying “no” or avoiding things. It’s about recognizing that everything we do involves an element of risk, and there’s an upside and opportunity to this risk. It’s about weighing the costs and benefits of each project we take on and making responsible decisions only after this risk assessment. Always remember that from risk comes reward.

Q. Have you ever taken a risk and turned it into an opportunity?

A. Any risk can become a great opportunity, particularly when you manage that risk better than your competitors. Take sponsored research, for example. It’s highly competitive and ripe with risks, but universities can’t ignore the opportunities that come with it. Sponsored research is now our leading source of revenue.

Q. What are your biggest exposures?

A. We have an extremely broad spectrum of risks. Our human capital exposure of employees, students, and alumni is across the globe. We have historic properties; sports and entertainment venues; residence halls; a hotel; and state-of-the-art research facilities. We have our own healthcare system, an accredited police force, and we generate our own energy. The risks are all over the map. Despite all of these tangible assets, the biggest risk exposure we all have to manage is our reputation. We’ve been in business since 1793. Great reputations take time to build, but they can be destroyed quickly when you ignore your blind spots.

Q. What has been your biggest risk-related success at UNC?

A. Our biggest success has been building a visible risk management brand across campus. We’ve accomplished this by engaging our leadership and stakeholders with an enterprise approach to managing risk. We try to create “mindfulness,” where risk management becomes second nature and integrated into everything we do. Building business relationships is critical to this success. Each relationship I build with a colleague immediately aggregates the risk intelligence of the university.

Q. What kinds of claims do you typically encounter?

A. As a public university, our claims are handled quite differently than the private sector. We have limited sovereign immunity for our tort claims, and much of this process flows through the N.C. Attorney General’s Office, which serves as our defense counsel. We’re primarily self-insured for most of our insurable exposures, so it’s our skin in the game, not an insurance company’s.

Q. What risk-related challenges are unique to a university?

A. Many people equate universities with just teaching students, but our mission is actually threefold: instruction, research, and public service. I find that the risks associated with our research and public service are far more complex and fluid. Oftentimes, we’re the trailblazer with no map to follow. Being a public university also adds another dimension to our risk management. Our actions are constantly on display, and we must be transparent in everything we do.

Eric Gilkey is executive editor of CLM Magazine, a publication of the Claims and Litigation Management (CLM) Alliance. He may be reached at eric.gilkey@TheCLM.org.

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