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Leadership 2.0: RMI Programs
In the Middle of Nowhere

Building a successful risk management program at a college far from top insurance centers takes persistence and industry support.
  • J. Tim Query
  • February 2019
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WESTERN SETTING: New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, New Mexico, features a well-supported risk management and insurance program.

Photo courtesy of Darren Phillips/New Mexico State University.

 

[Las Cruces] is not exactly the middle of nowhere. … But it is an unlikely place for a thriving college RMI program.

Las Cruces, New Mexico, is nowhere near the world's great insurance centers.

But New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, has nevertheless managed to maintain a thriving risk management and insurance program.

While the insurance industry in the Land of Enchantment is not on the level of those in major metropolitan areas, the amount of support from the few local insurance companies is significant. New Mexico State University's RMI program has probably received more support per capita, based on the state's population, than any other program in the country.

The fact that New Mexico State's RMI program is thriving, despite being in such a remote location, shows that it is possible to build a program just about anywhere, if it has a champion or an advocate promoting it, as well as industry support.

The Back Story

It's not exactly the middle of nowhere. Las Cruces is the second largest city in New Mexico and less than 45 minutes from El Paso, Texas and Juarez, Mexico, giving the Borderplex region a total population of about 2.5 million to 3 million.

But it is an unlikely place for a thriving college RMI program. New Mexico State's program can be traced back to Professor L.E. “Lije” Pease, who established an insurance program at the University of Mississippi in the late 1970s before relocating to New Mexico. The story goes that Professor Pease approached the dean of New Mexico State University business school in the mid-to-late 1980s about teaching some insurance courses. The dean said he loved the idea, but had no budget for it. Pease said that was fine as long as he had an office and a phone so that he could talk with students.

About 15 years after Pease began his work at New Mexico State, Al Berryman, a long-time independent agency owner and former president of the Independent Insurance Agents and Brokers of America in New Mexico initiated a conversation in the early 2000s with Thom Turbett, the president/CEO of the Independent Insurance Agents of New Mexico about an endowed chair at New Mexico State.

Interest in moving risk management and insurance studies forward quickly gained momentum. Berryman became the first director of the Insurance and Financial Services Center, and Barry Smith, a college of business faculty member and editor of the CPCU Journal at the time, was the first holder of the Mountain States Insurance Group Chair—the first endowed chair in the NMSU College of Business. The Insurance and Financial Service Center, which supports students and studies financial issues of interest to New Mexico and the southwest region, was also established in 2004.

Industry Support

The region does not seem, at first, to be a place that could offer a lot of support for a college RMI program. The state counts only two significant domestic nonhealth insurance companies, a statewide population of 2 million and ranks at or near the bottom in many desirable categories—last in public education (K-12), next-to-last in child well-being. But support from the few local insurance companies is significant.

Mountain States Insurance Group, with significant backing from Edward Lujan, an NMSU alumnus and chairman of the board for the Manuel Lujan Agencies, created the Mountain States Insurance Group Endowed Chair with a $1 million donation.

The other New Mexico-based insurer, New Mexico Mutual (NMM) has contributed more than $500,000 over the past decade.

The IIANM also has been very supportive of the RMI program. A yearly golf tournament, sponsored jointly by the IIANM/NMM Foundation, provided $10,000 in annual scholarship funds to RMI students at NMSU for nearly a decade. Upon the liquidation of the Foundation in 2014, another $50,000 was provided to the RMI program at NMSU, split between operating expenses and an endowed scholarship.

A Personal Journey

College RMI programs also need a champion.

When I accepted the Mountain States Insurance Group Endowed Chair position in 2006, I was seeking a new challenge in my career as a professor of risk management and insurance.

I had been an instructor in the Department of Finance and Management at Indiana State University in the early 1990s, where I observed one of the most successful regional RMI programs. I completed my doctoral studies at University of Georgia in 1999. My first position after receiving my doctoral degree was at Illinois Wesleyan University. With a total enrollment of around 2,100 students, IWU may well have been the smallest school with an RMI major and minor. Being in the same twin cities where State Farm Insurance and Country Insurance &Financial Services were headquartered played in major role in that development. While in Illinois, insurance professionals from all areas of the industry would volunteer as speakers at RMI classes. The largest CPCU chapter at the time was also in Bloomington, Illinois. From that background, I moved to the Southwest/Mountain States region, to one of the poorest counties in one of the poorest states in the United States.

Here is some of what I've learned over the past 20-plus years as an RMI academic.

Seek Out Industry Organizations

Try to establish relationships with industry-related organizations. The IIANM was and is still the most active and organized such organization in the state. The CPCU chapter in New Mexico was small and semi-active, and yet it donated a set of CPCU study guides from the chapter.

Contact RIMS chapters. New Mexico is one of only a handful of states without a RIMS chapter. Fortunately, we were the first RMI program in this region of the country, and we were able to establish a relationship with the Central Arizona RIMS and Rocky Mountain RIMS chapters. Both chapters have been supportive of our program, and provide financial support that allows us to send students to the national RIMS conference. The Rocky Mountain RIMS Chapter also has established an endowed scholarship at New Mexico State University.

Look at Ways to Reform the Curriculum

A few minor changes to the curriculum were also implemented. The life/health and employee benefits courses were combined and a business risk management class was added. In addition, the math department was contacted about creating an actuarial science emphasis within the math major, incorporating some RMI and other business courses along with applicable math and statistics courses. Fortunately, our math faculty was very cooperative in this effort. Thanks to a grant, an excess and surplus lines class was offered last summer.

Recently, one slight change to the RMI minor allowed nonbusiness majors to complete the minor with 18 credit hours instead of the previous 33 credit hours required. Also being investigated are other ways to integrate the RMI minor with majors outside the college of business, in areas such as criminal justice, agribusiness, engineering and hotel/recreation/tourism management.

It's also important to ask potential employers to verify that the courses offered to students are relevant and bring value to the companies they join after graduating. For example, we are receiving a lot of feedback about the increasing importance of data analysis, and are looking at ways to incorporate more of those classes into the curriculum.

There are many interesting and timely issues that can be brought into the classroom. Topics discussed in an online class I taught this summer included the RMI impact of insuring the World Cup, legalized marijuana, genetic underwriting, the internet of things, drones, etc.

Get the Word Out

This may be the most challenging aspect of program development. Even though some semblance of an RMI program, or at least classes, had been around NMSU for at least 25 years, a formal minor and endowed chair was meant to take the program to another level. We needed to let students and the community know about us, and the opportunities in the industry. We accomplished this by:

  • Talking to freshman business classes.
  • Having a vendor booth set up at the IIANM's annual convention and arranging high school visitation days at the university.
  • Contributing articles aimed at insurance consumers in local media such as newspapers; talking about issues such as health care reform on public radio or TV.
  • Visiting area high school economics, business or math classes to educate them about risk management and insurance.
  • Making appearances at the Rotary or other service clubs, industry groups and any organization that will host a speaker.

Bring Students and Professionals Together

This isn't unique to a program in the middle of nowhere, but having events that bring students and professionals together has been very effective.

This can be accomplished by taking students to conferences, bringing in guest speakers to classes, job shadowing and field trips. The vast majority of people I bring in from the industry are excited and happy about their careers—and students pay attention to that. Young alumni that are only a few years older than current students often bring a natural connection to the classroom.

Outside of RMI programs, it is unfortunately still unusual for industry professionals to run across many college students specifically interested in an insurance career, so when they do interact with them it is a very positive experience. The Beta Beta chapter of Gamma Iota Sigma at NMSU has been an effective tool for increasing student-industry interaction.

Overcome the Frustrations

Sometimes you just have to ignore the barriers to improving your RMI program and keep moving forward. The industry says it wants to increase diversity and make inroads into the Hispanic market. While the student body at New Mexico State is 53% Hispanic/Latino and 3% Native American, insurance industry participation in NMSU universitywide career fairs is still disappointing.

An increasing number of insurance companies, however, are starting to see the light. Industry trade publications should also recognize there are RMI university programs available in areas other than in the Northeast, Southeast or Midwest. Don't give up. It may appear at times that a program champion is having a minimal impact. But it may just take some time to come to fruition.

Toot Your Horn

As the saying goes, “the squeaky wheel gets the grease.” Champions of RMI programs must be the programs' biggest cheerleaders and let stakeholders know what is being accomplished. Stakeholders include potential employers, students, alumni and, last but not least, university administrators.

One factor that brought me to NMSU was the support of the finance department head, the college of business dean, and even the university president. All those positions have experienced turnover in the past dozen years, but the support has generally been maintained. The program produces a semiannual stakeholder newsletter that is sent out to over 1,000 subscribers and participates in a LinkedIn group called “NMSU RMI Alumni &Friends,” which has been very helpful in keeping up with mobile alumni.

Focus

As university faculty know all too well, our responsibilities extend beyond the classroom. At some schools, research-related activities have a larger role. There is the “publish or perish” criteria for those untenured tenure-track faculty. As individuals move up to a tenured “full” professor, they are expected to be involved in more leadership roles, some universitywide. While it has become increasingly challenging, opportunities or potential obligations should be approached with the question, “how does it impact the RMI program?” If it requires too much time or resources at the expense of the RMI program, I usually do what I can to avoid such conflicts if possible.

 

Best’s Review contributor J. Tim Query, PhD, CPA, ARM is president, Asia-Pacific Risk and Insurance Association, and is the Mountain States Insurance Group Endowed Chair at New Mexico State University. He can be reached at tquery@nmsu.edu.


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