Planning for Business Disruption in Higher Ed Can Save Money and Lives

By: Jacqueline Lee - Leave a comment


In 2014, the University of Wisconsin-Madison experienced a significant business disruption — 80,000 students, faculty and staff were left without email access, distance learning capabilities or wireless connectivity after a tree crashed into an electrical pole during a storm. According to, the pole supplied power to a vital campus substation, which powered uninterruptible power supply (UPS) systems at the university’s main data center.

Although the university had a generator capable of providing 72 hours worth of backup power, it depended on the UPS systems, which meant it couldn’t function.

By 5 p.m., the university had restored power to the data center, and by 9 p.m. reported that email and web access were restored. However, because of the loss of the power substation that supported the UPS systems, most of the data center’s backup batteries were damaged and had to be replaced. UW-Madison only experienced a data center outage for a single day, but other universities facing business continuity challenges might not be so lucky.

Unique Challenges for Higher Ed

On many campuses, the majority of IT resources are concentrated in one location. Although UW-Madison had smaller supplemental data centers, none could take on the workload after the storm knocked out power to its main data center.

And because of higher education budget constraints, full redundancy is rarely an option. While IT may tightly manage certain data center domains, including payroll and other critical functions, many universities have other independent domains for email, departmental data and college records, and those independent entities often have wildly varying standards for how they back up data.

Restoration after a disaster isn’t the only business continuity concern at today’s colleges and universities. Because crises frequently affect large populations, universities have to be able to maintain essential functions like public safety and campus communications.

During the June 2016 shooting incident at UCLA, for example, CNN reported that students relied on internet connectivity to access the UCLA website, which provided instructions for what to do in an active shooter scenario. Students also used search engines to find ways to secure doors that didn’t have locks. Without internet access during the crisis, more lives could have been lost.

Handling Business Disruption: More Issues to Consider

The University of Massachusetts at Amherst created a guide for academic continuity planning during a business disruption, and it addresses some unique issues universities face, including the following:

  • Preservation of materials: Universities store so much crucial information, from exam records to student projects to unique library artifacts.
  • Financial matters: From account balances and available money to loan and scholarship records, students and faculty — as well as government regulators — depend on colleges to keep accurate financial records.
  • Health care: Many universities operate hospital systems that become major players in emergency scenarios.
  • Large events: A disaster could require evacuating tens of thousands of people from buildings or stadiums if it happens during a graduation or athletic event.

The Rewards of Planning Ahead

Ponemon research states that thorough business continuity planning within the education industry can save universities as much as $757,965 on data breach recovery. This doesn’t begin to cover the savings that business continuity planning could generate in the event of prolonged closures, medical quarantines, damage to buildings and equipment or major system disruptions.

Another potential reward of business continuity planning? Universities are easier and cheaper to insure. However, insurance isn’t a panacea, according to Brent Escoubas, vice president of risk control for Alliant Insurance Services.

“Insurance doesn’t cover all losses, so that can’t be an excuse for avoiding continuity planning and response,” Escoubas told Security Magazine. “Companies that do best have frequent third-party assessments. Bringing in another set of eyes helps.”

Creating and Implementing a Plan

Taking all these factors into account when creating a business continuity plan may seem overwhelming, to say the least. As Escoubas suggested, a third-party business continuity solution may be the best option for higher-education institutions.

Top business continuity vendors offer solutions that address all aspects of disaster recovery, from data center resiliency to emergency communications. When schools partner with a third-party provider, it’s a huge task off their plate, which allows them to focus on their main mission: educating tomorrow’s leaders.

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About The Author

Jacqueline Lee

Freelance Writer

Jacqueline Lee specializes in business and technology writing, drawing on over 10 years of experience in business, management and entrepreneurship. Currently, she blogs for HireVue and IBM, and her work on behalf of client brands has appeared in Huffington Post, Forbes, Entrepreneur and Inc. Magazine. In addition to writing, Jackie works as a social media... Read More