Bringing up student death is uncomfortable, yet unavoidable. In recent years, it has become even more important for college leaders to proactively discuss this topic with key campus stakeholders as concerns about campus safety and student well-being increase. Presidents are often asked to offer decision support to the student death response team and serve as the “healer-in-chief.” Students, faculty, and staff look to presidents to help navigate the grieving and healing process when a tragedy happens.
Despite their pivotal role, we found that most presidents do not discuss their student death protocol or their specific role in the institution’s response with their vice president for student affairs (VPSA) until a student death occurs. This is a very high-risk moment to make critical decisions about next steps. Mishandling a student’s death can have far-reaching consequences: faculty and staff can lose faith in leadership, students may call for administrators’ resignations based on perceived inaction and insensitivity, and families may feel unsupported and take legal action against the institution.
Over the last year, EAB conducted research on how to facilitate healing on campus in the aftermath of student deaths. Our research team found that having proactive conversations about the institution’s student death response can ensure an equitable and compassionate response, foster healthy grieving, and avoid flashpoints in the aftermath of a tragic loss. As a result, we strongly recommend presidents ask their VPSA these three questions to proactively clarify the president’s role and the institutional process in the event of a student death.