Risk: The Game of Life


Risk is life.

Life is risk. The words and concepts are almost interchangeable. You can’t take a breath without risk; get out of bed or walk outside your door and the risk increases, there’s also a certain risk associated with doing neither of these but it’s different. Everything we eat or choose to do has risk: at school, our romances, hobbies we pursue, and jobs we take on. People waste a lot of time mitigating risk in these things: hiding, waiting, worrying and keeping their heads down.

To embrace life is to embrace risk.

To paraphrase Farber’s Dean Wormer, “keeping your head down, doing your time and getting through it is no way to get through work, boy.” For some, including many good folks in higher education, everything at work is associated with managing risk, personal and institutional.

When work is the absence of risk, that’s no way to live.

Is the goal of work, more work? Or is it singular achievement. Is it an expression opportunity? Is it enough that you look back on your time at an organization and see lateral and vertical movement, and opportunity for new work? Or do you look back and admire your work as a thing unto itself?

Are you layering on a coat of paint or creating a unique masterpiece that will stand the test of time and define you?

Using a favorite metaphor of mine, when you go to the casino do you go to win, or to lose more slowly? According to most players, for every dollar you wager in a slot machine you will lose 100%. Generally, about 70% of a casino’s gross revenue comes from slot machines. The casinos light the city with winnings from slot players, so that more players can find their way.

It is the house’s game.

The colleges and universities at the top of your competitive sets are “the house” in this metaphor. They have created the rules of engagement. When you play the house game by the house rules, see above. There has been much written about the presence or absence of a higher education bubble. It’s not a bubble. That is just a sensational and scary way to get attention by equating the dynamics of the industry with the far-reaching real estate catastrophe.

No, MOOCaphiles, the category will not burst, nor is the sky falling. However, the bottom will certainly, albeit slowly, fall out. The least of each category will suffer the most. High profile elite institutions will stay calm and educate on. The Chronicle will not cover daily a growing cascade of folding colleges and universities, nor will there be an imminent slate of mergers and consolidations. Instead there will be a deliberate and brutal cleansing.

The attrition will take the shape of wholesale shrinking of lesser-endowed and lesser-regarded institutions. Long-struggling departments will finally fold. Capital investment projects will disappear, footprints will shrink, salaries will be re-adjusted and almost certainly quality will suffer. And a new bottom will be established.

So if you are at the very top of your category, enjoy, invest, educate, repeat. If you are not, perhaps now is the time to take the gamble on yourself and your institution. Invest in yourself, build on your personal story and in the story of your institution and yes, your brand. Your brand is your greatest strategic institutional asset and you can be its most powerful advocate.

But it’s going to be risky, and it’s going to cost more than the slot machines if you want to win.




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