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When Bad Things Happen to Good Universities

The EvoLLLution | When Bad Things Happen to Good Universities
When a PR disaster strikes, institutional leaders must work hard to minimize the damage, protect their students and keep everyone informed—otherwise poor press coverage will lead to an enrollment hit.

It comes as no surprise to most of us that college and university campuses are microcosms of our entire nation. Good and bad behavior and positive and divisive interactions coexist as they do within the general population. The difficulty comes when one or more challenging incidents occur on campus and university administrations are faced with the decision as to their response. I want to share some thoughts about how colleges and universities choose to respond to those incidents (because it’s always a choice) and what institutions do to recover from difficult situations and the attendant media coverage.

There are many examples of universities dealing with behavior on campus that has attracted significant negative attention. Think Penn State, Baylor, Evergreen State, Oberlin, University of Missouri, etc. You don’t have to look far to find media coverage dealing with free speech issues (guest speakers invited, dis-invited, protested and shouted down), hazing on campus (fraternities and sometimes sororities and athletic teams gone wild), sexual assault (Title IX claims growing exponentially), child abuse (the failure to protect young students participating in athletic camps and other activities on college campuses) and student deaths due to risky drinking behaviors. And the media attention goes far beyond the academic press; national and regional media outlets cover these stories extensively and sometimes salaciously. If higher education is a public good, then we are under the microscope for the ways in which we do and don’t protect our students. The Trump presidency has heightened passion on all sides of the political continuum when it comes to expectations regarding the free and open exchange of ideas on campus and what constitutes acceptable behavior.

There are a couple of reasons that institutional response matters. First, significant negative media attention may have a material impact on the number of applications in future years. Although the number of applications is not the only metric that matters in institutional financial health, a significant drop may negatively impact institutional capacity to reach enrollment and revenue goals. For example, at least one institution in Baltimore experienced a new student enrollment decline when riots over the death of Freddy Gray occurred in mid-April—just prior to the May 1st Candidate Reply Date.

The second reason, and one which matters greatly to the internal community, is the repair of institutional feelings. When bad things happen on campus it may have a polarizing effect among faculty, staff, students and alumni. Often universities craft responses that recognize the situations of aggrieved parties and are designed to mend internal rifts and hurt feelings. Finally, campus leaders may end up leaving their jobs when their role in finding common ground that brings the community together becomes untenable. Some of these leaders may have unintentionally exacerbated tension through their behaviors, and others will simply fall victim to intransigent problems that do not seem to offer a reasonable path to reconciliation.

So, if we agree that public relations crises matter, how do you protect your institution so that these problems are less likely to arise, or that when they do occur, you have inoculated yourself sufficiently so that you can successfully address concerns and move forward?

One of the things we have learned over the last several years is that as leaders we are much better at dealing with specific acts such as racist rhetoric, hazing and sexual assault than we are at dealing with the underlying conditions that cause people to behave in these ways. Supporting victims and following the student conduct process is more immediate and direct than improving campus culture.

One of the ways that an institution may begin to shape the narrative around any campus incident is their agility in responding. Universities are deliberate places and we like to gather information and reflect before answering. But the immediacy and sometimes explosive nature of social media means that a different skill set is required. When there is an incident, the president and senior leadership team must consider how to respond, when to respond, and how much to respond. If there is a delay—often to gain more information—it may appear that the leadership team is unresponsive or uncaring. This is particularly challenging when various voices are calling for specific types of action that the leadership team is unprepared or unwilling to provide. The dilemma for leaders is that if you take too long to respond, you dig a hole from which it is hard to recover. Activists want change now, which is at odds with our desire to gather accurate information and follow institutional policy. At a minimum leaders should be prepared to issue statements that address what is known, that the behavior (whatever it might be) is unacceptable, express support for the individuals affected and reiterate community standards.

Another strategy to ameliorate campus incidents is to have a good ear to the ground for what your students, faculty and alumni are thinking and feeling. You need to know their concerns and take them seriously. No college president or leadership team wants to appear disconnected from campus climate or be caught flat-footed when there is a problem. Think about what your community is talking about and their perceptions. When you know what’s going on and how people are reacting in general, you will be better prepared to respond quickly if the situation escalates. It’s much more challenging to move forward from a difficult incident if one has given no thought to the situation or what will be the most appropriate institutional and leadership response.

Open lines of communication matter. People should feel confident that their concerns will be heard and addressed. It helps to make clear the best avenue to gain information, and who is the point person to deal with specific types of incidents. Distributing responsibilities may be an effective way to implement a plan. Presidents may use their positional power for high-level communication and have their lieutenants on the ground working with individuals. When everyone is on the same page, this strategy allows for broad-based engagement and builds bridges for improved relationships post crisis. When a crisis arises, listen, reflect, prepare and then communicate. With a solid plan to hear from those involved on all sides of an issue quickly and efficiently—even if you are not able or don’t wish to accede to any/all of their demands—you will be in a better position to move forward once the incident is past.

Some final thoughts about moving forward. You want to understand the problem—deeply. Get all the facts that may be quickly ascertained and think about the range of viewpoints and how people are feeling. Of course you think that you need to move quickly, but a little time to gain more clarity about the situation will prevent rash statements or confusion of the facts that have to be corrected later. Although the pressure to respond—to do something—is intense, your reasoned response hopefully gets you to a better place later. Emotions are not your friend in this arena.

Determine the amount of information to share. Telling everything feels like transparency, but sometimes less is more. Clearly communicate what you know and your institutional response. People don’t care about the details as much as they care about what you plan to do about it. Think about what your audience(s) needs to know and wants to hear from you and focus on them.

Even when the truth hurts, honesty is the only policy. You’ll want to find the best possible way to share the information, but often just laying it out there is to your benefit. People’s go-to response is that institutions are spinning information, so the less you do it the more credibility you gain.

Bad things happen to good people and to good organizations. We will, at some point, be called upon to help our universities overcome negative attention. Treating people with integrity and compassion matters. And while we won’t be perfect, we want to make every effort to get our response right the first time. If this is our foundation, the healing will get a faster foothold.

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