More than 21% of college presidents said they felt unprepared in the area of crisis management during their first presidency, according to one survey. The climate of skepticism toward higher ed fuels increased scrutiny of senior administrators’ actions during a crisis. And the rise of social media means that students and the public expect a quick response to every issue.
Missteps during a campus crisis can lead to executive turnover, spur student protests, and threaten enrollment, Natalie Schwartz reports for Education Dive.
Looking at several recent campus crises, Schwartz rounds up a few lessons of what senior administrators should—and shouldn’t do—to recover from a crisis.
1: Be transparent
During a crisis, “your best bet is to be as transparent as possible as early as possible because that gives you the best opportunity to put the narrative in your terms,” says Jeff Hunt, a crisis communications expert.
But leaders often make the mistake of being defensive rather than acknowledging and taking responsibility for the incident, says Adriana Kezzar, who researches how college leaders should respond to racist incidents on campus. “They try to be secretive and put things on lockdown rather than being open,” she explains. “That creates a cycle of distrust.”
Instead, launch an independent investigation to demonstrate “an authentic and transparent response to the crisis,” recommends Hunt. And make information about the university’s response easy to find for students.
2: Act swiftly
Campus leaders “need to remind people where and when they held people accountable (and) what the accountability looked like,” says Hunt. “Then they need to proactively talk about what they’re doing on the campus and more broadly to prevent it from happening again.”
For instance, a college dealing with criticism about its handling of sexual assault might hire more Title IX employees, invest in mental health services, and streamline the process for students to file complaints, writes Schwartz.
But if leaders don’t take any action, “they could lose their competitive advantage, if not permanently, for a long time,” warns Hunt.
3: Learn from other leaders
Senior administrators wrestling with a crisis can learn lessons other industries, says Lynn Pasquerella, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. She points to Starbucks and Walt Disney as two examples of companies that have handled scandals well in recent years.
When Starbucks had a racist incident in one of their stores, CEO Kevin Johnson apologized and shut down the coffee chain’s U.S. locations for mandatory anti-bias training. And in 2016, Disney officials offered remorse to the family of a 2-year-old boy who died from an alligator attack, erected a monument in the boy’s honor, and put up more signs warning guests of the danger, writes Schwartz.
“They didn’t just disavow responsibility or blame the parents,” says Pasquerella. “They took responsibility, they worked with the family, they worked with the community and they engaged in restitution in ways that were meaningful.”
“It’s high time university presidents adopt that same mindset: I’m the steward of this brand, and that means I better anticipate anything that can cause harm to our reputation,” says Hunt. Campus leaders “really need to have a culture where they’re studying other people’s crises… because, but by the grace of God, it’s not on your campus yet, but it could be tomorrow.”
4: Be proactive
“If you’re a major university and you’ve got 30,000 students and 10,000 faculty and staff and 150 buildings, something is going to go wrong,” says Terry Hartle, a senior vice president at American Council of Education. “It’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when.”
While it’s impossible to know when a crisis will arise, experts say its best to prepare proactively for one. Ensure your has the capacity to support diversity and inclusion before a racist incident happens, recommends Kezzar. Put a diversity and inclusion plan in place, foster relationships with student activists, and periodically assess the campus climate.
American University (AU), for example, stays on alert for possible crises, especially at certain times of year. The university’s communication staff were discouraged from taking vacations in mid-August to ensure that they would be able to respond to crises that could occur before classes begin.
AU uses social media monitoring software to keep tabs on potential crises and collects information from departments to communicate with activists before protests take effect. The goal of these interactions is to tell protestors, “Let’s establish some rules of the road so that you can be successful and work is not disrupted and academic activities go on as planned,” says Teresa Flannery, VP for communication at AU (Schwartz, Education Dive, 2/21).