Student affairs – Pressing challenges of safety, security, risk and law

The practice of student affairs and services has become more complicated as countries face challenges currently common to tertiary education. Among issues of most concern are how student affairs and institutions address protecting students from physical and psychological harm, and how student affairs and services comply with the legal environments.

When issues of crime, terrorism, violent political protest, governmental interventions, wars, genocide and other violence-related issues are added together, these problems often seem insurmountable.

The following definitions apply here:

1. Safety – Safety is the condition of being safe from undergoing or causing hurt, injury or loss.

2. Security –Security refers to what has become known as ‘homeland security’ in the United States, but that takes other names elsewhere.

3. Risk management – Those policies and plans that address matters such as weather-related issues, geological issues, significant events caused by safety or security violations, and protection from liability.

4. Legal issues – Higher Education operates within the legal context of the nation, locality and possibly region or state. Legal issues refer to the creation of an awareness of and compliance with that legal environment.


The structure of student affairs and services or SAS organisations varies widely. Unlike in the US, where many universities have police with armed officers who have the power of arrest, universities elsewhere tend to have security departments with no arrest powers and that must rely on local law enforcement agencies.

In addition, there are many threats on campus such as fear of contagion, mass media and social media attention, the campus environment, perceived versus assessed threat, and responsibilities held by higher education officials.

Student affairs and services have a role in managing fear on campus, working with media to control the message, reporting to students and parents the reality of potential threats and the duty of care that SAS personnel have to students, employees and the university.


As terrorism has become a threat around the world, and as war, revolution and genocide continue to plague humanity, higher education has become a target for terrorism and other serious harm. Higher education institutions are gathering places for large numbers of people and are often deemed high prestige targets. Universities often conduct research that can attract violent responses.

As a result of threats and actual terrorism, student affairs and services around the world must accept their role in protecting their students whenever possible. It is incumbent upon SAS to understand the terrorism and other threats on campuses and in communities.

Risk management

The concept of risk management supports both safety and security and reaches beyond these to the prevention of liability and preparation for unforeseen events.

Twenty-three risk categories have been identified. Within these, and perhaps of greatest concern to student affairs and services, are student organisations, speech and expression, emergency responses, international students, gender-related issues, institutional culture, codes of conduct, student health, public safety, fire and life safety, disability rights, records privacy and alcohol and drug issues.

Several categories of risk also exist.

These include strategic risk – goals of the university; financial risk – potential financial loss due to lawsuits; and operational risk – institutional management involving employees, student affairs and services and volunteer groups, sports teams where present, classroom activities and research.

This could also extend to risks from accounting and finance, health and safety, and medical services; compliance risk – compliance with standards related to health and safety, workplace safety and the like; as well as reputational risk – the maintenance of a positive image that enhances the reputation of the organisation and its activities.

Legal issues

Legal issues have an impact on student affairs and services in many ways. The structure of government in every country varies. In most cases higher education and SAS are governed at the national level by a ministry of education. There are often other legal and political structures within the government that may also impact upon student affairs and services.

Among the types of law are:

Constitutional law – Many nations have constitutions that form the basis for the legal system within the country.

Statute law – Law that is created by legislative bodies but may also be created in other ways. These laws often deal with specific topics such as taxation, police powers and virtually every other operational aspect of government.

Common law – In cases where there is no constitution, or often in addition to constitutional law, there is ‘judge made’ law.

Religious law – There are several countries around the world that are ruled by either religious law or religious law in conjunction with one or more of the other types of law described above.

There are also several categories of law that may impact upon student affairs and services. These include:

Tort law – Torts are civil wrongs recognised by law as grounds for a lawsuit.

Administrative law – Administrative law encompasses laws and legal principles governing the administration and regulation of government agencies.

Criminal law – Criminal law involves prosecution by the government of a person for an act that has been classified as a crime.

Contract law – Contracts are promises that the law will enforce. The law provides remedies if a promise is breached or recognises the performance of a promise as a duty.

Tax law – Each nation has laws related to the collection and usage of monies collected from citizens in the form of taxes. Public institutions receive, for at least part of their revenue, benefit from the collection of taxes.

Other laws – There are many other types of laws and legal issues, of which we should be aware. Among these are health and safety law, labour law, immigration law, copyright law, patent and trademark law, antitrust law, environmental law, disability law, accreditation and laws related to research.


Student affairs and services is responsible for providing services to students and offering knowledge and help to students during their college careers. SAS practitioners create a safe and secure environment, offer protection to allow students to learn and develop, and create opportunities for students to grasp their full potential.

Issues of safety, crime prevention and security may be addressed by providing programmes and informing students of do’s and don’ts, and of ways to avoid victimisation. Arranging the way in which all of this is provided falls within the remit of student affairs and services management.

Risk management is another area in which all realms of practice may be demonstrated at one time or the other. It takes leadership to create an environment where an understanding of risk is developed, and all staff and students practice risk assessment and management techniques. Developing and offering workshops, professional development activities and classes in creating a less risky environment is educational in nature.

Becoming aware and developing an understanding of legal issues impacting on student affairs and services are important tasks. It is critical that an understanding be part of the training of SAS staff, that professional development related to legal issues be the norm, and that consultation with trained legal counsel be a part of the routine of senior SAS administrators.

Student affairs and services administrators need to take the lead in ensuring legal and ethical practice, in educating students and other professionals about legal issues and challenges, and in managing their programmes in legal and ethical ways. This will allow SAS staff to provide the other services and developmental activities described elsewhere.

* This article is taken from “Section VI – Safety, security, risk management and legal issues in student affairs” by Dennis E Gregory, John R Broderick and Colleen B Doyle. In Ludeman, R B, (Eds) (2020) Student Affairs and Services in Higher Education: Global foundations, issues, and best practices (3rd ed). International Association of Student Affairs and Services or IASAS in cooperation with the Deutsches Studentenwerk (DSW): Berlin.

Dennis E Gregory is Associate Professor of Higher Education and Community College Leadership at Old Dominion University in Norfolk in Virginia, United States. Email: John R Broderick is President of Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, in the United States. Email: Colleen B Doyle is Student Advisor in the College of Engineering and Architecture at University College Dublin in Ireland. Email: