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Use this tried-and-true framework to navigate today’s political fault lines

June 19, 2024, By Chrysanthi Violaris, Analyst, Strategic Research

College campuses have always been vibrant student involvement and activism hubs, where young voices are heard on issues ranging from climate change to international conflicts. But the magnitude of today’s student activism is attracting attention from the worldwide media. Some university responses have faced major backlash from both students and the general public. Termed “campus flashpoints,” these incidents demand swift and thoughtful responses from leaders and pose unique challenges in navigating today’s complex political and moral landscapes.

  • “”

    Flashpoint

    A controversy causing a disturbance in the district due to public activism, criticism, or reputational damage.

Although higher ed leaders are no strangers to these divisive issues, managing flashpoints has become a constant and challenging aspect of the job. They divert attention from strategic initiatives, creating decision fatigue and chronic stress among leadership. Today’s flashpoints require a new approach that allows leaders to reduce flashpoints’ impact on students and institutional strategic initiatives.

Our research team delved into strategies high-stress management professionals use to effectively address divisive issues. Among these methodologies, the Cynefin framework stands out as a valuable tool for navigating modern flashpoints. It divides problems into four distinct categories, each warranting a tailored approach for resolution. This framework adapts well to meet the flashpoint and activism response needs seen in higher education today.

How Cynefin finds the best strategy for each flashpoint component

While today’s flashpoints are multifaceted and go beyond simple categorization, leaders can harness Cynefin to determine optimal strategies for addressing each aspect of a flashpoint. By diagnosing the nature of the problem, leaders can then apply appropriate strategies for a more nuanced and effective response.

Cynefin’s four categories

1. Clear: Has been solved before and best practices exist

EAB’s selected tactic: Implement a “Triage Stoplight” for decision public response to controversial flashpoints, categorizing them into green (respond), yellow (evaluate case-by-case), and red (avoid response) zones.

a green traffic light

Green zone

Mission critical

Impact: Direct impact on students and educational mission

a yellow traffic light

Yellow zone

Mission indirect

Impact: Indirect impact on students/staff, but not mission

a red traffic light

Red zone

Mission unrelated

Impact: Unrelated to educational mission

2. Complicated: Can be solved through the help of an expert

EAB’s selected tactic: Establish a peer-informed risk register to streamline responses based on past incidents and peer opinions.

3. Complex: Unprecedented, solved through trial and error

EAB’s selected tactic: Complex problems cannot be solved by a “one-size-fits-all” solution but must be whittled down to a more manageable problem. Higher ed leaders should test different tools in their toolbox for the right solutions, releasing “draft” guidance that is constantly updated as new flashpoints arise.

4. Chaotic: No control at all, need to establish constraints

EAB’s selected tactic: Use large group constraints during board meetings to manage potential chaos, including standardizing public comments, preparing media interactions, defining security protocols, and maintaining a strategic, student-centric communication approach.

Effectively managing campus flashpoints is a complicated process that can be daunting for higher ed leaders to handle independently. Our Strategic Advisory Services help leaders work with today’s student activism to guide effective and efficient responses. For more information on navigating current and future flashpoints, visit our Flashpoints Resource Center.

Chrysanthi Violaris

Chrysanthi Violaris

Analyst, Strategic Research

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