Leadership and campus crises

I recently spent a  day at the American Council on Education in D.C. at a roundtable on “Leadership in Times of Crisis.”  About 15 college and university presidents were invited to talk about their experiences;  the session will be transcribed (without individual attribution, unless permission is explicitly granted) and published in the ACE roundtable series.  A specific goal is to provide advice and guidance for the next generation of leaders in higher education;  ACE is acutely aware that the average college president today is 61 years old and headed for retirement.

I anticipated hearing about a wide range of crises that face colleges and universities these days.  The group described many topics I expected, but some others were notably absent. 

Crises that were described in the conversation:

  • A mission change that was profoundly resisted by the alumnae.
  • Student suicide (many mentions).
  • Student murders.
  • Student deaths because of drug overdoses.
  • Sexual assaults, almost always by football players.
  • Previous administrations that had not abided by the Clery Act (which requires campuses to report crime statistics honestly and openly).
  • Following a president who had been fired for overspending (by about $6 million) on the president’s house.
  • The registrar’s office sending dismissal notices to 700 students (only 100 were supposed to receive the letter).
  • Faculty who had been denied tenure spreading rumors about the president changing the institution’s mission – overnight and without consultation.  (In this case, the rumor was that the African-American president was converting a historically black college to a predominantly white one – in the span of a semester.)
  • A university medical center operating on the wrong leg of a patient.
  • Having an institutional budget that must be approved by Congress and signed by the President of the United States.  (And we think we have problems with our budgets approved by boards or state legislators!  But it’s worth noting that this is a process issue, not a dollar concern.)
  • Community members who keep the local newspaper on speed dial and report any rumor they hear as if it were fact.

Topics that were not mentioned in the first round of the discussion: natural disasters (although I worked earthquakes in later), rising tuition, or declining budgets.  All the issues that the leaders in the room wanted to discuss were about the human dimension of a college or university community.

Lessons drawn from the collective experiences in the room included the following:

  • Remember that leaders need to be visible during a time of crisis (in spite of what the lawyers may say).
  • Hire people with good judgment, not just specific expertise.
  • Use your own judgment and follow your instincts – especially when it comes to following advice from legal counsel.
  • Have plans for emergency response and emergency communication – and test them frequently.  Remember that internal and external audiences may need different messages.
  • Internal audiences are more important than external ones (although the internal messages can sometimes be shared effectively externally).
  • Have a pre-existing relationship with an external firm that handles crisis communications and crisis management.
  • Know who the back-ups are for all the key people – and who the back-ups are for the back-up personnel.
  • Always tell the truth – and be honest when you don’t have information.
  • Use the web wisely.
  • Don’t assume that you get a pass just because a disaster is outside of your control.
  • Build relationships with media and other external constituencies before you need them.
  • Don’t assume people remember what you have said in the past.
  • Have a statement of institutional principles that will guide your responses.  Never lose sight of these values. 
  • Talk about the issues on campus before they become issues.
  • After a crisis, don’t assume everyone has moved on; be sensitive to the institutional history and the role that a crisis plays in the institution’s collective memory.

And, perhaps most importantly, repeat your mantra “Cool head, warm heart.”

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