Values Before Risk Assessment

Why is it a problem to place consideration of risk at the forefront of collective or institutional decision-making processes?

Imagine that you had an array of specialized individual consultants that you could involve, one at a time, in your personal choices. What would go wrong if you always chose to have a specialist in risk management be the first or dominant consultant you used in making decisions?

Suppose you watch a documentary on climbing Mount Everest. It’s an upbeat travelogue, so it doesn’t dwell on the deaths, the frozen mountain of shit, the crowding. You say to your consultant, “I find that really interesting. I’m really drawn to it. What do you think?”.

If your first consultant is a risk manager, they’re going to tell you about the high death rate from climbing Everest and about the immense expense of climbing Everest, which may threaten your financial solvency. You aren’t ever going to get a chance to think about what interested you.

Did your heart thrill at the thought of standing on the highest mountain in the world? Or did you just want to go to the top of a mountain, any mountain? Did you want a motivating goal to drive a fitness program in roughly the same way people buy lottery tickets just to authorize dreaming about being rich? Did you want to just see what it looks like down in basecamp at Everest? Or are you interested in Nepal and Sherpa culture?

You will not get the chance to ask what you valued in the thought of Everest in that initial inchoate moment of feeling. If you just want to get way high up in some scenic mountains and you don’t care how, the risk manager will have a useful answer for you after you have come to that conclusion. Go to Zermatt, get on the cable car to the Klein Matterhorn, and enjoy. If you want a safe hike, hike up to the Gornergrat and then go back on the railway. If you just need an imaginary goal for fitness, you don’t need the risk manager to step in and explain that trying to train too fast for climbing Everest will risk injuries–you need someone to design a fitness program that steps you up methodically.

If on the other hand, what really grabbed you was the idea of standing at the top of the highest mountain in the world, you still need to think without risk first. Why do you value that? What’s valuable about it? What awoke in you at that thought? Only after you’ve thought that through should you ask, “Is it worth it?” Because then you’re asking: might I die? Be seriously injured? Spend my entire life savings? Get stuck in a queue for three years running? Be dismayed because the vision in your head is nothing like the current reality of climbing Everest? The risk manager’s job is in theory just to lay out relative risks to you and leave you to think on it, but in practice most risk management is about risk reduction, never really about risk amplification–and yet, in some value-driven decisions, the risk is either necessary or even desired. A man set on flying in a wingsuit through a narrow rock arch is looking for something risky and difficult to accomplish.

So if you listen to that litany of risks but you haven’t gotten clear in your own head what was driving the thought of “stand at the top of the highest mountain”, you may get talked down into something like “Go to the top of Mount Washington in New Hampshire” when actually what you really should get talked into is “train for a peak in the Andes that’s less crowded but equally dramatic and challenging”, because you don’t mind the risk of death and you don’t mind the expense, you just mind the idea of standing in line with a bunch of other rich people looking at a mountain of frozen shit and some corpses that nobody wants to move.

Evaluating risk and liability should happen when we begin to act on decisions, not when we first envision them. Risk evaluation should not propose, it should only dispose.


I understand why “neoliberal” seems like a word that is so expansively pejorative that it may seem to have no specific descriptive value. But we need a word for a common form of organizational design and a common culture of shared decision-making that has dominated the 21st Century so far. “Managerial” and “technocratic” grasp parts of that form but have their own shortcomings.

What are the specifics of the form that I think is best named by the word neoliberal? I’m going to work up a definition here without a lot of reference to many of the excellent academic works that try to do the same, partly to clarify for myself what I’m referring to with the term and to open up other possible words or labels.

First, a strange intertwining of utopian self-description layered over both internal deliberative process and external communications with a private, confidential and protected work process that acknowledges problems, shortcomings, and the social realities within the organization and in the organization’s situatedness in the world, and yet is also curiously enough the space where the organization’s actual goals and mission can be discussed, sometimes in fairly idealistic ways. This may sound as if it only applies to higher education, but I think this is a reasonable description of law firms, hospitals, corporations, think-tanks, non-governmental organizations and so on. The gap between how an organization presents itself to the world and how its internal cultures of work function is not particular to our neoliberal moment, but that gap is now especially intense and disorienting. It has become all but impossible to speak forthrightly in ways that are visible, public and transcribed about the gaps between what an organization performs as its values and the ways in which values are inhabited and invoked in its actual practices.

Neoliberal organizations sometimes appropriate metaphorical framings of their internal processes and nature that do not at all match how they actually work or why they exist. Especially favored is talk of “community”–the “Walmart community”, the “World Bank community”, the “United Way community”–and to talk of “mission”. We need not understand these appropriations entirely cynically–their adoption and use is not often a coherent, calculated, top-down strategy with clear instrumental intent. But generally they neither provide clarity nor opportunity for reflection. Mission and community are invoked instead as a deferment of and disguise for hierarchy. Sometimes cynically, sometimes mournfully: many organizations that have fallen in line with neoliberal sensibilities and practices do so with a sense of regretful surrender to a way of being that is everywhere and nowhere at once.

Second, organizations subject themselves and all who work on their behalf to the agonies of incremental progress towards goals that are chosen because they can be measured concretely and analyzed quantitatively. The reasoning here is that values are often unquantified, complicated, arguable, so they cannot be used as a way to judge institutional or individual performance. Increasingly, even, values are replaced under neoliberalism by missions and goals (and stating those in measurable terms is increasingly favored). Why is the measurement of performance important? Because institutions compete with one another and must prove their worth in commodified terms to clients and customers. The better the performance on goals, the more valuable (not value-driven) the institution is. And employees are seen in competitive terms to one another and to the larger labor markets they were hired from. To justify remaining on the payroll, they must every year deliver incrementally more value in the accomplishment of the mission. These missions are never rendered as startlingly new or fundamentally recommissioned, so progress must always be now and forevermore incremental, because to have a year in which progress happens with sudden speed amounts to a confession of persistent past failure–and sets up an impossible futureward expectation. The point here is that neoliberalism in this sense despises the idea of the individual or collective maintenance of values, because that is something that might simply happen year in and year out, in stewardship or duty. The lighthouse is maintained so the boats do not crash in the storm: it doesn’t have to prove that it has been .5% more effective in navigational efficiency compared to most lighthouses and hence should be preferred as the lighthouse of choice. Neoliberalism abhors the language of values except as a way to manipulate people who still believe in vocation or mission into providing .05% more quantifiable output in the coming year–or accepting 1% less support for doing so.

Third, neoliberalism assumes and even often mandates the dissolution of public goods and accordingly also forces individual organizations to regard forms of large-scale collaboration on behalf of public goods as both improvident and illicit. Governing authorities within neoliberal institutions, whether boards, owners, executives or even in rare cases, larger collectives, understand their due diligence as applying nearly exclusively to a single specific institution and often insist upon or reinforce its sovereign distinction from other institutions. Institutions can join associations, but they do so much as nations might join international organizations, as permanently separate, autonomous and voluntary participants in associational bodies. Much of this is explained in terms of compliance with antitrust statutes or other laws, and indeed, under neoliberalism, this is the one form of relation that institutions acknowledge to public goods or the wider society: a need to comply both with governmental regulation (in letter, at least) and often even with quasi-legal codes or regulatory obligations that are envisioned as necessarily and undebatably authoritative. E.g., neoliberalism insists on the autonomy of organizations except in terms of domination by other organizations or in terms of contractual obligations (thought even those are frequently subject to complicated evasion and abrogation). Competition, yes; compliance, yes. Collaboration? Reluctantly if is perceived to be allowed, and never at the risk of asserting genuine collective interest in a way that creates bonds of obligation, reciprocity and desire. Older institutional infrastructures that do so are treated as undigested and troublesome fragments.

Fourth, neoliberalism thinks about resources in two primary ways: as something to be ceaselessly accumulated and as something to be regarded, seemingly paradoxically, as forever scarce. No neoliberal institution, whether company or NGO or university or local non-profit ever sits comfortably on available resources, even asset-based wealth. The organization must always have more, and the organization must always imagine itself as never having enough. That is so pervasive a disposition that it spreads readily to everyone who works for any given organization, all the way down to entry-level employees. No one imagines being custodians of a secure resource, spending it wisely as, in the older meaning of the term, trustees. Everyone is looking for more, and everyone is eager to prove that they both need more and have done their part to get more. Thus do companies sitting on unspeakably large cash reserves and non-profits with endowments in the billions convince themselves that they suffer from scarcity and its numerous psychological and cultural afflictions. But at the same time, organizations are keenly aware that they have vast assets both tangible (property, capital equipment, investments) and potential (unused or underused intellectual property, underutilized space or services, etc.) and they work with great intensity to protect both what they own and what they might own someday. Neoliberalism both seeks rents and works to protect its existing rents; a neoliberal society is primarily an asset-based one. And asset-based societies favor the first in and punish the last in–they are in some grand sense Ponzi schemes. People chase IPOs with frankly idiotic companies like Juicero because they know that there is no other way to climb the ladder past the first few rungs: the existing base of accumulated wealth inside older neoliberal organizations is so vast that no new entrant can compete without the equivalent of an accumulative miracle. (Or, as in “disruption”, without essentially destroying some class of asset holders and grabbing like children at the pinata candies that spill out–but just as at most pinata parties, the greedy and the bullies get most of the candy.)


I take this detour to explain why risk management, usually in the form of legal counsel, stands in front of conversation and deliberation within institutions about values, even in institutions that are not ostensibly devoted to profit or growth. That layer of institutional decision making exists to protect the assets that allow institutions to grow and compete in a world of rent-seekers–and the mission of protecting those assets dictates most of the rest of what I have described as neoliberal organizational culture. The institution makes utopian promises that it knows are impossible, but it cannot acknowledge the gap or apologize for it, because such statements invite a lawsuit from a stakeholder who experienced that gap. The institution seeks endless incremental improvement because dramatic reconsiderations of its purpose are far too risky–leave that for start-ups!–but simply maintaining a steady hand at an ongoing mission is also too risky in an environment that requires everyone to perform competition against others. Making decisions based upon deep underlying values–or deciding what those values really are–is too risky: what if the values lead you to some commitment that you can’t control or sublimate as necessary?

This all sounds terribly abstract, and I mean it to sound that way, because I honestly think this is a deep habitus that runs across many kinds of organizational cultures that we are all influenced by and often are unaware of, that we take to be common sense or pragmatically necessary. However, moments of crisis have a tendency to surface some of what is ordinarily buried inside everyday life. So I will turn to a less abstract example: how U.S. higher education has made decisions in the face of the covid-19 pandemic.

A necessary prelude to this analysis is that American higher education, like American businesses and civic organizations, has had to make decisions on its own in part because of the deliberately engineered failure of national leadership and the resulting divergent range of state and municipal leadership across the country. In societies with more coherent national leadership, institutional leaders have had to worry about a much more constrained range of decisions that are being left to them. In the US, higher education has been left to fill a howling void within a very constrained time frame. Under that kind of pressure, no group of leaders, no community of professionals, could be expected to get everything right, no matter how they went about making decisions.

However, if you look at higher education in that crucible, I think you can see everywhere the signs of risk management and legal counsel being involved in the proposition, not disposition, of decisions.

Institutions like many community colleges that already make extensive use of online education and that do not have to deal with students coming from across the country or from outside the United States to be in residence on campus have had a more natural pathway to the fall semester. They still have the same concerns about making classrooms safe for any in-person use if they decide to do that, the same problems with courses that aim to teach students physical skills for operating machines or using particular tools, and the same basic issues with operating in a disastrous economic environment.

On the other hand, institutions that put on-campus residential life at the heart of their operations almost universally made an abrupt decision in March of 2020 to send students home from dormitories and to close on-campus facilities to use by both students and employees. Since that time, most residential institutions, public and private, small and large, have been wrestling with the question of what to do with summer programs and with the fall 2020 term.

Resolving that question has depended from the very beginning on having a forecast or model of the pandemic’s likely course over the remainder of 2020. So the first and very sensible decision that almost every institution made was to wait until May or June to commit to any course of action and in the meantime consider the possible strategies they might employ in the fall.

The basic alternatives were also clear: operate normally with basic precautions, open fully but with unusual or extensive responses to the pandemic, open in a ‘hybrid’ or limited format with extensive pandemic management strategies, or close completely for a semester.

In the event that the pandemic was coming to some form of natural end by June, a normal opening would have been the obvious strategy, but even in March no reputable authority or forecaster saw that as likely or possible. So the real debate almost from the beginning has been between full residential opening with extensive pandemic management, hybrid or limited openings that saw some or most students study online from their homes or off-campus housing, and a complete shutdown for the entire fall term.

It would be unfair to suggest that risk assessment be excluded from the making of this decision. Anyone contemplating the stakes in this decision would be instantly aware that if the wrong option were chosen, the results could be illness and death, but also the chaos and financial costs of once again sending students home in an unplanned response to a deepening crisis.

But even here, that assessment ought to come after a deeper values-driven exploration of the question, “What do we care about the most in thinking about a semester? What do we value about our work together when it is operating normally?”

Let me lay out what it looks like to decide about covid-19 policies with those questions as the first you answer, rather than post-facto narratives that are attached, sometimes awkwardly or mysteriously, to decisions that were reached with risk, liability and image maintenance in mind.

A university or college could decide that first and foremost, they value students having the most deeply transformative and empowering educational experiences possible within the time that they are matriculated students, that the major reason the institution exists and should exist into the future is the provision of this experience. Answering in this fashion doesn’t have to be a consumerist answer: an institution could also maintain, in a values-driven way, that what it means by experience is not just a simple transactional service.

If this is the primary driving value, then a university might well decide that it is important to open despite covid-19. But it is at this point that considering other values and considering pragmatic challenges to a values-driven decision should enter the picture. For example, what other values might a university hold as rivalrous or at least important? A university might hold that it also values the production of knowledge in the form of scholarly research, clinical trials, and so on. It might also take the rhetoric of “community” seriously and value its faculty, staff and students not as employees and customers, but in terms of their human relations–and obligations–to one another. The university might regard its service to either a local public or some wider regional, state or national public to be deeply important, whether that is providing popular spectator sports for smaller cities and towns that otherwise have no local professional teams or it is as a civic benefactor, protector of open land, or source of cultural events.

It might even put one or more of those values above the provision of the most transformative educational experience for students, though I think few institutions would if it was put in these terms. Putting these things in terms of values and subordinating talk of revenues, liabilities or risks sorts values into primary and dependent columns. If the primary value is the most transformative and empowering education for enrolled students, then a university might decide that a precondition of that education are faculty and staff who are driven by their own autonomous and individual motivations to educate and produce knowledge, and that this in turn means requires an institution that genuinely means it when it pronounces itself a community. Which in turn may turn over yet more dependent values. For most of us, the word community implies non-hierarchical relationships between people living near one another. When we mean it in a positive sense, most of us think about life in community in terms of mutual obligation to one another, as collective and shared responses to life’s challenges.

It might not decide that, of course: there is a possible (maybe even existing) university where the people in control of it have decided that delivering the best education for students requires maximum hierarchical efficiency or it requires strong conformist alignment behind a single culture for both employees and students or it requires the maximum frictionless delivery of a commodified service to individual paying consumers. Each of those might dictate a different position on opening in the fall of 2020.

But for the university that says first that it values a vision of education as both individually and collectively empowering and transformative and that second it values the production of knowledge in service to wider publics and third it values organizing the labor of both of those commitments in terms of community, the decision about opening in the fall of 2020 rests on the interrelationship of these three values and what might keep them from being fully lived into.

They may have some intrinsic tensions. Scholarship and teaching frequently inform one another, but not invariably so. Communities that have to allocate a finite set of resources rarely make everyone feel happy even if they have completely democratic, consensus-driven deliberative processes. In the case of covid-19, other tensions enter in. What if some members of a community are more vulnerable to the disease? What if multigenerational communities specifically are vulnerable because of that? What if closure of other services or of critical infrastructure outside the university make it impossible to produce scholarship? The whole point about enunciating values clearly as a starting place is that you get to see where they conflict with one another and you get to decide how to resolve those conflicts. That might mean putting one value above another. It might mean deciding how to resolve conflicts between different values on a situational basis while continuing to insist that they are otherwise equal in the obligations they place upon people making decisions.

Risk, liability and revenues now finally enter the picture in their proper place. Does the university need revenues that only reopening can provide in order to exist in six months or a year so that it can continue to fulfill those values? Do people in community need to avoid the danger of infecting one another in order to live up to what is meant by community? Is providing students a transformative and empowering education incompatible with increasing the chance that either they or their teachers and supporters might be sickened or that their families might be sickened as a result of contact with their children (either on delivery to campus or return to home)?

Is it ever right to think of a fulfilling and transformative education as putting the life or safety of students at risk? I think it is perfectly possible to answer this question as “yes”: we accept that athletics involves the risk of serious injury, we accept that scholarly research in the world may involve the risk of injury, assault or death from accident or from the unpredictable actions of other people, we accept that the stresses of education may produce suffering or mental debility. If we came to the conclusion that in a population of 5,000 students, around .1% of those students would attempt to commit or commit suicide due in part to the stresses of the educational environment, most of us would still judge that the value of the education is such that we should continue to provide it. But we would also likely say that we need to put resources into reducing that number to zero or as close to it as possible–and that if particular features of that education were causally responsible for that small fraction of cases, they should be modified or abandoned. You don’t start from the risk, but you eventually put it into relation alongside the values. Even those of us who say, “It is never acceptable to put a single life at risk to education a thousand people” need to start first with what we value and get to risk assessment afterwards.

For the most part, institutions influenced by the culture of neoliberalism don’t build that way. Values or principles get declared as retroactive narratives designed to explain or justify commitments that were made to protect a particular configuration of assets from a perceived set of risks or liabilities.

I think you can see the signs of that all over how higher education as a whole has stumbled into the fall of 2020, all the way back to Brown University President Christina Paxson’s early op-ed that served more or less as a template for what would follow across the sector. Students must come back, there must be testing and social distance and mask-wearing, there must be plexiglass installed. But Paxson’s essay really doesn’t explain very thoughtfully why the provision of education at institutions like Brown is in fact important, because most of higher education takes for granted that what they offer is important and necessary without really thinking up to that importance from foundational values. You can almost sense a kind of fear behind that early summer thinking that this crisis might actually reveal that absence–that forced to explain why we must do what we do, the sector as a whole finds itself stumbling for the deep convictions that would provide a stirring and persuasive answer and that in the giving of this answer, the question of “What is to be done?” would begin to spell out its more specific answers.

If higher education has answered the question backwards, that’s because it has been working from an analysis of revenues and from a reactive analysis of risks as they appear, both of which represent an attempt to cope with a profound rupture in our lives as if they were a whack-a-mole game at a carnival. No answers that have deep meaning to sustain a community or that explain the reasons for the education to which we are so devoted can come via that route. I also think it is no coincidence that both forms of institutional process are understood in modern institutional life to be the most necessarily unknown and unshared information within the institution’s forms of self-knowledge–undercutting the value placed on community and on the production (and consumption) of formal knowledge as a public good. The contract, the lawsuit (or fear of one), the balance sheet are all documents that encode a particular vision of human values and human possibility and they are by their nature kept from community view and are exempt from its deliberations. One could propose that by their natures, they enable all the other values that we might uphold. That, at least, deserves an open discussion of the kind that neoliberal culture has generally foreclosed.

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2 Responses to Values Before Risk Assessment

  1. Hannah K says:

    Hello & thanks for this very thought-provoking post.

    Do you have any books (or essays, articles, etc) you’d recommend to better understand how *neoliberal* decision-making differs from other forms, and perhaps examples of modern institutions that embody non-neoliberal ways of approaching problems?

    I ask because, when I read articles (like this one) that describe neoliberalism in terms of near-term-ism and an obsession with incremental gains, disproportionate skepticism of non-quantitative data, and so on, it feels like something very real and grotesque is being described—

    —but I always fail to articulate the specific *failings* of neoliberalism in more general discussions, since, well, arguably we can encode any given thing we want to achieve in terms of these incremental gains and missions (just as one could describe virtue ethics *in terms* of denotology, merely by choosing those deontological rules very carefully), and how *do* you expect to measure or analyze the effect of a policy on a large population without missions and incrementalism?

    I’d like to better be able to understand and articulate the anti-neoliberal position, basically..

    (Your blog post seems like a good start and I’ll be thinking about consider-risk-first vs consider-values-first for a while, but I’m assuming there’s other literature out there?)

    Thanks for any recommendations you can offer.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    I think this is a great question. I will immodestly say that I’m trying to think about this question myself in some writing I’m working on now, but I expect that to take a while.

    I don’t think the great critiques of neoliberalism out there like David Harvey’s book are really talking about this kind of institutionalization of neoliberalism and they’re not much help in understanding it.

    One of the challenges here is that asserting that these patterns–and the problems they produce–are systematic and philosophical means that the answer cannot be simply a different set of procedures or processes. Indeed, what I’m thinking of as “neoliberalism” in this institutional sense has proven remarkably adept at stripping the larger goals or aspirations of some criticism and adapting that critique to its own systemic nature. When neoliberal institutions encounter critiques of diversity (racial, gender, etc.), they turn those critiques into new procedural logics (do workshops on bias! create incremental metrics that document greater attention to diversity!). When they encounter evidence that conventional styles of meetings are unproductive and simply reproduce existing forms of managerialism, they look for a new style of meeting (thus avoiding the more complicated problem of managerialism).

    So I think to talk about the failings of a neoliberal habitus involves the breathtakingly difficult challenge of asking what a more humane style of working together towards common purpose might look like and what might be expected to come of that. If were to say, for example, that academic institutions should wholly abandon all forms of managerial assessment (of teaching efficacy, of scholarly productivity or impact factor, etc.), what would I argue is better (and in so doing make clearer what was wrong with assessment regimes under neoliberalism?) It is easy to find books that explain what’s wrong with neoliberal assessment (Jerry Mueller’s The Tyranny of Metrics or Cathy O’Neil’s Weapons of Math Destruction) but those critiques explain that those metrics don’t do what they’re claiming to do and they do other unintended things that hobble or cripple an organization in achieving its stated mission. They don’t reject on principle the idea of assessing effectiveness. So one could say that maybe if you leave people to think for themselves, in terms that make sense, whether their work is going well, and to think in dialogue about shared work, you will largely get a better and more humane outcome than if you manage them. Faculty autonomy proposes exactly this: that people who subscribe to a professional ethic can be left alone to live up to that ethic and only require management in the breach. “Strong” neoliberalism flips out about this point because it has a philosophical conception of human beings which it rarely has to defend explicitly and never has to verify through skeptical examination in which it believes human beings will cheat, fail, and shirk responsibility if they are not monitored and managed.

    And yet even the proposition about autonomy and professionalism often accepts that every properly professional person ought to be striving for a kind of maximalism: to do the best, to do the most, to achieve peak performance. So I can imagine a more human managerialism that simply sees a belief about autonomy as a different road to the usual objectives: for organizations to extract maximum value from the people they have hired. That’s where on one hand Ilana Gershon’s writing about changes in how we value labor is useful but also where a book like Daniel Milo’s Good Enough might be helpful. Maybe a more humane way of thinking about work and life involves abandoning altogether an ethos of maximalism (before climate change perhaps compels us in a panic to do so under conditions that do not permit reflection). Perhaps that same idea (that we don’t need to be the best or the most, just adequate) could open working together and living alone to other kinds of reflection that neoliberalism does not allow: what do we value, really? Why?

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