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The Best Way to Prepare for Disaster: Crisis Leadership and Higher Ed

The EvoLLLution | The Best Way to Prepare for Disaster: Crisis Leadership and Higher Ed
Understanding the stakeholder’s perception of your institution is critical in when preparing for a crisis. Their values should be your values.

Crises on postsecondary campuses used to be rare. Now, they’re growing so rapidly they need the attention of leaders across all divisions of an institution. Ralph Gigliotti, Director of Leadership Development and Research at Rutgers University, explores this issue in his latest book, Crisis Leadership in Higher Education: Theory and Practice. In this interview, Gigliotti discusses the different types of crises and how people can respond to them, and reflects on how institutional leaders need to shift their mindset in order to be ready to face an unexpected crisis.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What inspired you to write a book on crisis leadership and higher ed?

Ralph Gigliotti (RG): Though we talk a lot about colleges and universities being value-based organizations, I noticed over the last couple of years that higher education leaders have responded to crises with practices and behaviors that run counter to those stated values. There’s a disconnect there. This led me to really dive deeper into what constitutes crisis in higher education, and how values-based organizations, particularly colleges and universities, can best respond to those events or situations that are perceived to be crises.

Evo: What are some examples of the kinds of crises you’re referring to?

RG: I did a content analysis of a few different news sources and looked at over a thousand different instances of situations that might be characterized as crises. The result was a taxonomy of crisis types that are most germane to colleges and universities. The full taxonomy’s detailed in the book, but there are financial crises, natural disasters, student affairs crises and even athletics and academic crises.

Evo: Why do we talk about crises so much in colleges and universities? Are they happening more often?

RG: There was a time when crises on college and university campuses were relatively rare and episodic. When such incidents occurred, they were typically handled by a small team of individuals within a small number of units at an institution. But we’ve seen a change and it seems to be increasing rapidly.

There’s good research to support the fact that crises are growing in magnitude, frequency and complexity—and we see and feel that in higher education. It’s not easy to pinpoint one reason why, but we could look at the increased pressure on our institutions, and the role of social media in amplifying the level of attention paid to crises.

These factors converge to make the role of modern institutional leaders all the more complex.

Evo: Does the increased attention to crisis in higher education speak to a changing role of colleges and universities within a broader society?

RG: One of the major challenges for postsecondary leaders today is that there are a number of stakeholders—more than many other sectors—all of whom have different and competing perceptions about what higher education’s core purpose is.

Our institutions are embedded in larger ecosystems that are increasingly complex and divisive. All of that complicates how we look at and understand crisis.

We need to learn from how other organizational sectors and types respond to crisis. After all, just because we have so many differences from a for-profit organization doesn’t mean we can’t learn from their crisis-management approaches.

Evo: What are a few key skills that continuing education division leaders need to manage crisis?

RG: The importance of perception cannot be underestimated. One of the central findings from the project was really looking at crisis as a social construction. There are things that happen in the environment that impact our institutions that may be considered crises, particularly a natural disaster that shuts down academic buildings, damages our cyber system, whatever it might be. But there are a whole host of other crises in the environment that are based on how people are looking at and perceiving the situation. If a critical mass of individuals—whether it be students, faculty, staff or external stakeholders—perceive there to be a crisis, it’s a crisis worth attending to from the perspective of leaders.

So, perception matters. That’s the first critical takeaway.

The second one is looking beyond the reputational implications of crisis. We tend to use communication as a way to perhaps spin our way out of crisis when it unfolds. But really tuning in and claiming those values and principles in the mission that we talk so often about—and to use that as a compass and guide for decision making and communication in the aftermath of crisis—is really paramount.

Those two themes, the perception of crisis being critical and looking beyond the reputational implications, are two of the major themes in the book.

Evo: What are the negative ramifications of handling a crisis poorly?

RG: It seems like organizations that are committed to learning would take this seriously, right? There’s a lot to say there. I talk about this counter cultural need for agility in the book. Higher education, by design, is slow-moving and deliberative. That’s really been a key ingredient to our success because we take care in the decision-making process and in engagement, ensuring that we’re being thoughtful and systematic.

Crises by their definition are fast and disruptive. They require a level of agility that our organizational systems don’t necessarily have a lot of experience with. We’re becoming more competent in this area. Colleagues in continuing education most certainly are exploring and engaged in this work themselves to envision what the future of higher education might look like. Being more purposeful and agile in how we’re handling the kinds of cross-cutting factors that might be on the horizon for us—it’s just something that doesn’t come naturally to us.

We talk about the importance of learning and we know there is value in encouraging our students and learners to take learning seriously. But what are the ways in which organizational learning is actually built into the culture and fabric of our institutions?

That’s something that we probably could do a better job with, particularly as it relates to crisis. What might we learn to be more competent, to be more agile, more systematic and value centered in the ways in which we approach crisis?

You can read more on this topic with Giglotti’s latest book

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.