'Foolproof,' Risk and Higher Ed

Greg Ip’s new book on 'Why Safety Can Be Dangerous and How Danger Makes Us Safe.'

January 6, 2016

Foolproof: Why Safety Can Be Dangerous and How Danger Makes Us Safe by Greg Ip.  Published in October of 2015

The higher ed crowd that I run with spends much of our time worrying. We wake up thinking about Kodak, ponder Blockbuster over lunch, and go to sleep dreaming about Blackberry. Ask us about the most important trends in higher ed, and we might answer you with a rant about Palm and some ideas for Yahoo.

If you, like me, are a worrier - then Foolproof should be on your ‘must read’ list.

Ip makes two big points in Foolproof:

  • Sometimes, efforts to decrease risks will often have the unintended consequences of actually increasing bad outcomes.
  • Sometimes, an appetite for engaging in specific risks will actually have the effect of diminishing danger.

One illustration of this phenomenon is driving. Put snow tires on your car and you are likely to drive in dangerous weather conditions. Anti-lock brakes largely fail to diminish accidents as drivers engage in risk compensation (the Peltzman effect), driving faster and braking later in the belief that anti-lock brakes will compensate. Death rates per 100 million miles traveled tend to be higher in states with long straight highways and warmer weather, as snowy and twisty highways slows drivers down and makes them pay more attention.

One of the main points that Ip makes is that the most dangerous condition that a person, an institution, or an industry can find themselves in is precisely when they feel the most safe. The 2007 to 2009 Great Recession took so many people by surprise because almost nobody thought that housing values across the U.S. could fall so far so fast.

If we feel that we are totally covered, and catastrophe is not imaginable, we will stop paying attention to signs of danger. In 2007 Nokia held over 50 percent of the global market share for cell phones.  By 2013 that market share was down to 3 percent. Did anyone at Nokia imagine that in 6 short years that the company could go from world domination to irrelevance?

Does Foolproof provide the intellectual cover that will enable us to shift our academic cultures towards greater comfort with risk? Will Foolproof provide support for those of us engaged in existential worry about the position and status of our institutions in an increasingly competitive postsecondary market?


Getting a conversation going on campus about the dangers of risk avoiding behaviors is always a worthy goal. Trying to get their schools more comfortable with experimentation and fast failure is a goal shared by every higher ed leader that I know. Many of us will defend the traditions and enduring values of our colleges and universities, but few of us will say that we go to work everyday to maintain the status quo.

It seems to me that an important prerequisite to developing a more risk tolerant academic culture is a commitment to educational R&D (research and development). Deciding on what risks to take in order to make non-incremental advances in our core teaching, research, and service missions will be impossible unless we develop methods to measure and evaluate the return on these investments. We don’t want to push initiatives that are high-value / high-risk unless we have a good idea where these initiatives fit within our larger strategic goals.

How have you been able to get a discussion about risk going on your campus?

What do you see as the actions that we take in our colleges and universities that we think are making us safe, but are actually putting us a risk?

What do you think is the greatest threat to the viability, sustainability, and long-run success of your institution?

What are you reading?


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