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Research Report

Addressing Campus Climate Flashpoints

A briefing for senior institutional leaders

January 7, 2019

Climate flashpoints are the new normal, as all types of colleges and universities grapple with a wide range of incidents on campus. Flashpoints are climate-related incidents or events that cause disturbances in the community or media, including heightened levels of activism, media and public scrutiny, and reputational damage.

While student affairs, campus safety, and/or university communications may take the lead in responding to a particular incident, it is critical that all senior institutional leaders have a baseline understanding of the current flashpoint landscape. Effectively addressing climate flashpoints is a campus-wide challenge that requires thoughtful preparation and discussion long before an incident ever takes place.

This briefing outlines EAB’s five recommendations to improve institutional preparation and response for climate flashpoints. We recommend reviewing this briefing as a senior leadership team to identify strengths and prioritize areas of improvement. You can download the resource in its entirety or review the top-line recommendations below.

Regularly integrate flashpoints into your institution’s risk register

Most institutions rigorously track and manage financial, operational, and compliance-related risks. However, reputational risks—especially climate flashpoints—are largely overlooked, resulting in institutional under-preparation. Integrating these risks into your institution’s risk register and online risk monitoring strategy prompts earlier action to mitigate the impact of flashpoints.

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Create mechanisms to consistently elevate and discuss potential flashpoints

Most risk elevation efforts depend on the right person knowing the right thing at the right time. However, most campuses do not have a clear way for individuals to elevate potential flashpoints. Early and consistent risk elevation mechanisms allow for increased awareness and ongoing assessment of potential risks, and coordinated action to address emerging flashpoints.

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Develop a dedicated team to structure and coordinate the campus response

Institutions often depend on existing relationships to manage flashpoints, but this is increasingly insufficient due to high turnover rates among leadership and the scope and expertise of existing teams. A dedicated team ensures your institution has the structure, oversight, and processes to rapidly and holistically respond to emerging flashpoints.

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  • 54% of institutions believe they do not have the ability to withstand a major reputational risk event

Set clear expectations on when and how you will respond to flashpoints

One of the most vexing questions institutions face is whether to respond to a given flashpoint. Institutions are increasingly grappling with complex social issues that do not have a clear ‘right’ answer and today’s charged political climate makes it difficult to issue an innocuous response. A clear, pre-set response framework can expedite decision-making about when and how senior leaders should respond to flashpoints and help students, alumni, and other key stakeholders understand when to expect a senior-level response.

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Establish sustainable structures to address the broader context of flashpoints

All too often, colleges and universities respond to the immediate incident but fail to address the broader context on campus. Responding to the incident at hand is often time-consuming and it can be difficult to make and communicate progress on the systemic issues related to common flashpoints. Dedicated and flexible campus initiatives to address emerging concerns and communicate progress on longer-term initiatives are key to successfully managing flashpoints.

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Appendix: Supporting tools

To equip your institutions with the tools needed to better prepare for and manage climate flashpoints, review the supporting tools at the end of this briefing.

Cabinet Self-Audit

As a leadership team, use these questions to guide your assessment and discussion of your institution’s current practices in preparing for and managing climate flashpoints. Your responses to these questions can help you identify strengths and prioritize areas of improvement for your campus.

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Controversial Event Template Text from The George Washington University

Review this example from GWU on organizing your event details and messaging. Use this document template to inform a brief overview of concerns associated with event, on-site staff/organization contacts, and logistics of access and ticketing.

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Free Speech Policy Text from University of Maine System

Read through policy text from the Board of Trustees of the University of Maine System outlining the rights and values that will be protected together at University of Maine System institutions.

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More Resources

Resource Center

Campus Climate Survey Resource Center

Create a survey for your campus to measure students’ experiences with diversity, inclusion, and sexual violence.
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Manage Campus Climate Flashpoints

Learn how to manage campus climate flashpoints that cause heightened levels of activism, media and public scrutiny, and…
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Controversial Events Template

Controversial speakers and events are common flashpoints on campus. Manage the institutional response to these events with this…
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