The web is filled with articles related to Student Life. The hardest part is finding the content. Here is an article I stumbled on from a company called United Educators,which provides liability insurance and risk management services to universities. While normally too much lawyer talks scares me, this one is interesting because they are using the internet to make risk management more…well…manageable.
Cornell University, in partnership with United Educators, has developed a new, high-tech solution to the dilemma of how to make campus events safer. The Ithaca, NY institution has harnessed the speed and convenience of the World Wide Web to connect campus groups that organize events with the administrators who must approve each activity.
Cornell’s “On-line Event Planning and Risk Management System,” created using FileMaker Pro 4.0 for Macintosh OS, the leading database software and Home Page 3.0, a web authoring tool both from FileMaker, Inc. enables university officials to identify all the factors that can create event-planning risk, says Allen Bova, the university’s director of risk management. He says the system helps alert administrators to a host of problems – everything from potentially overcrowded dance halls, gridlocked parking lots, and noise violations, to the threat of food-borne illness, the possibility of underage drinking, and the need for emergency medical technicians at club rugby matches.
The system, made possible in part by funding from United Educators’ General Liability Grant Program, has made Cornell’s campus a safer place. “Since we put the system online, we’ve seen about a 20 percent increase in event planners and campus groups giving advance notice of their events” says Bova. “The result has been faster, more complete, and more comprehensive decision making on campus event-planning issues,” he says. “We have found that we can better assess the impact and the risks of special events.”
The on-line system also makes campus events more successful by prompting student groups to think carefully about how they plan and run their events.
The Old Way, the Slow Way
Event planning can be especially difficult at a large institution such as Cornell. With a student body numbering over 19,000, the university hosted more than 1,000 events during the 1997-98 academic year. The On-Line Event Planning and Risk Management System has been bringing order to that potential chaos since September, 1998.
The system computerizes what used to be a paper- and time-intensive process. The new system – essentially a series of interactive Web pages – works because everyone on Cornell’s campus has access to e-mail and the World Wide Web. The entire process “lives” on a computer in the Student Activities Office, but anyone can access the system via the Web.
I would add here that using just the world wide web and e-mail is a bit outdated at this point. Communication channels are evolving all the time and this system would be wise to keep up.
It’s a far cry from the old days. Since the early 1990s, Cornell has required officially registered student organizations to fill out a lengthy form for each campus event they sponsor. But the number of student organizations has grown dramatically in recent years, increasing from 450 to more than 580 between 1996 and 1998 alone. Those groups now sponsor dozens of activities each week, including meetings of student clubs and support groups, academic gatherings, cultural events such as dance recitals and concerts, and athletic events.
“Along with the increase in student organizations came an increase in the number of events taking place on campus,” says Joseph Scaffido, the assistant director of student activities who was instrumental in developing the program. “As more and more events were registered using campus facilities, the ability to keep track of events became much more difficult.”
Creating a Campus-Wide Resource
Before the on-line system existed, the event planning and approval process required plenty of time, endless patience, and sometimes, comfortable shoes.
In my days as a student leader, the registration process to host an event was extremly intimidatating. There were pages of instructions on what fors to fill out and who needed to sign off on it
Event planners had to complete an official form and then gather as many as 10 approval signatures from administrators throughout the university. “After completing the form, they would meet with a representative from the Student Activities Office, who would indicate various university officials who the event planner would have to notify,” Scaffido says. Trekking from office to office, “the event planner would then meet with and get signatures from the approvers. This was a tedious and sometimes frustrating process and could take weeks to complete.”
The On-Line Event Planning and Risk Management System changed all that. Now that it is up and running:
- Event planners can register the details of their proposed event without having to submit paperwork.
- Student Activities Office staff use e-mail to notify all administrators who need to review the event information.
- University officials can grant approval or submit comments and questions on-line, without having to sign papers or return phone calls.
- Administrators have the ability to conveniently search for and review all scheduled events that need their approval.
- In most cases, event planners can have their activities approved in less than one working day.
Streamlining the Process
The on-line system has made event planning faster, more convenient, and more efficient. At one time, a member of the Student Activities Office staff was dedicated full-time to collecting event forms, inputting the information into a database, and serving as the primary campus contact for event planning matters.
In contrast, the new system requires only a few hours a week for routine record keeping. Events are still approved by a team of campus administrators, but they now handle most event planning issues by routine e-mail, not hard-to-schedule meetings or rounds of telephone tag.
Most event approvals happen entirely electronically. Event planners go to a special Student Activities Web page and choose between two on-line forms: one for events where alcoholic beverages will be served and another for “dry” events. They fill in the blanks, providing all logistical information, and then click on a “submit” button. That automatically sends the information to Student Activities, where a staff member reviews the form and then sends it electronically to the various departments that need to give their approval.
At the same time, the system sends an e-mail message to the event planner stating that the approval process has begun and providing a password that enables access to a Web page reporting on the status of their event.
These departments typically need to approve events:
- Student Activities has overall responsibility for coordinating on-campus events.
- Athletic Facilities approves events taking place on athletic fields, in gyms, or at other buildings and areas that the athletic department is responsible for.
- Community Relations/Sales makes sure the Cornell name and logo are used properly and oversees events where merchandise of any kind is sold or given away.
- Cornell Police track where and when events are taking place for campus security, traffic control, and occasional crowd control purposes.
- Risk Management and Insurance evaluates the liability factors an event may present.
- Transportation Services considers events’ traffic, transit, and parking implications.
- Environmental Health and Safety must approve events that involve an array of vital campus services, enforcing building occupancy limits and providing emergency medical response and fire prevention services.
Administrators in each appropriate office receive an e-mail with a link to a unique Web address where they can find the event’s approval form. They can then look at the information that applies to their departments and either approve it or not.
The system lets them ask questions or add comments, which are sent automatically by e-mail to the event planner. A club rugby tournament this fall illustrates the importance of this feature. Although all necessary administrators approved the event, several took the opportunity to advise the organizer of key considerations. Risk Management and Insurance noted that players needed to sign and file waivers before participating. Environmental Health and Safety reminded the organizer to make sure the campus emergency medical services staff knew about the event. Once all administrators have signed off and all comments or questions have been addressed, an email message is automatically sent to the planner stating that the event has received final approval, and can go forward. Only if issues remain unresolved will the event planner be invited to meet with administrators to iron out details.
Bova says the Risk Management and Insurance Department has ultimate authority to approve or disapprove an event. “I consider our department the final check,” he says. “If one of the event planning team members isn’t happy, then I’m not happy.”
Effects on Campus Operations
Once approved, the event information becomes a tool for campus departments to use to plan their work and minimize risk.
“The Cornell Police post all events that come through the system so officers know all the details of the events that are supposed to be taking place on their shift,” Bova notes. “If they come upon an event that wasn’t listed, they can and do shut it down.” Campus police use event information to help coordinate security when student groups invite dignitaries to speak.
Environmental Health and Safety staff refer to the approval information to issue burning permits for bonfires. Food service staff check to make sure that caterers comply with health and safety regulations.
The on-line system is not foolproof, Bova cautions. Students, for example, can sometimes fail to tell the whole truth about their events, just as they could before. A student play produced last fall illustrates the problem. “They had flash pots on stage to create explosion effects,” Bova explains. “Well, they never told anyone about that little detail or included it on the form. And of course, some stage props caught fire during the performance. Fortunately, they did have fire extinguishers, and no one was injured, but the fact that they never told anyone about this risk is cause for concern.”
In the wake of that incident, Cornell officials have begun conducting on-site inspections of student theater sets. The university is also drawing up safety guidelines that student troupes will have to follow.
Bova remains enthusiastic about the on-line system’s value as a planning tool. “It keeps all the members of our event planning team on the same page, and helps us anticipate and prevent problems and increase safety,” he says. That doesn’t mean Cornell administrators are content to rest on their laurels. For example, they made several software upgrades within a month of rolling out the system last fall.
Bova also believes there is room for improvement in who must use the on-line system. Right now, only registered student organizations are required to use it. Academic departments and individual schools within the university can and do opt out, sometimes with worrisome results.
“A number of Cornell units aren’t using the system now, and we want to encourage them to do so,” Bova says. “One school was the site of a wedding recently, but they did not enter the event into the system. One of the caterer’s employees had a slip-and-fall accident, which raised potential liability issues that my office, of course, was concerned about.” They have since agreed to begin using the on-line event planning system. “I called the chief business officer, who talked to the dean of the school. Between them, they decided to get on the team,” he says.
As more segments of the campus community begin to use the on-line system, Bova envisions it becoming an even more valuable resource.
Advice for Other Schools
Other institutions can learn from Cornell’s experience. Bova offers three tips, whether a school seeks to computerize an existing event planning and risk management system or start one from scratch:
- Get everyone involved. “Approach event planning as a team effort,” Bova counsels. “Risk management cannot do it alone.” He credits the success of Cornell’s on-line event planning system to the participation of administrative departments from throughout the institution.
- Anticipate resistance. “Be prepared for people to complain that the process is too time-consuming or too bureaucratic,” Bova says. Managing risks through systematic event planning is difficult, but it is easier to plan ahead than deal with the adverse consequences of a mishap that could have been prevented. “You have to be able to communicate the benefits of systematizing the event-planning process to get other departments to join in the effort,” he says.
- Be positive. Bova says it is easy but wrong to approach event planning in a negative way. “Go into it with the idea that you want to approve every event,” he says. “You are there to help the university community safely host events that support its educational mission.” The On-Line Event Planning and Risk Management System has “helped us be a resource to event planners, not a hindrance,” Bova says. “We’ve approached this conversion very positively and proactively. That’s the whole idea behind our effort.”
For More Information
For more information about Cornell’s On-Line Event Planning and Risk Management System, contact Joe Scaffido, Assistant Director of Student Activities at firstname.lastname@example.org, or Allen Bova, Director of Risk Management and Insurance at email@example.com. To view the web site, go to http://www.activities.cornell.edu/EventReg