Presidents’ Advice for Campus Leaders in a Crisis

Shelves of books

While writing a chapter for Managing the Unthinkable: Crisis Preparation and Response for Campus Leaders (ACE, 2014), I had the opportunity to interview two retired presidents/chancellors with whom I had worked – former University of North Carolina Wilmington Chancellor Rosemary DePaolo and former Texas A&M President Ray Bowen.  DePaolo faced two different student incidents in which a student was stalked and then murdered, after which the perpetrator committed suicide. Both incidents occurred within a two-month period early in her tenure at UNCW.  Bowen was president during the Texas A&M bonfire collapse that killed 12 students and injured another 27.

I asked them, “Given what you have learned from successfully managing a number of significant campus crises, what’s the most important advice you would give to other presidents, chancellors and campus leaders in times of crisis?”

Advice from Rosemary DePaolo

DePaolo shared the following:

  • Campus safety is paramount, and that includes having the best possible crisis response protocols in place.  Consider asking an outside expert to evaluate your crisis response plan. Too often university leaders either deny that anything could happen at their institutions, or they become defensive, rebutting individuals who question existing practices.
  • Don’t let a crisis divert your attention so much that you forget your primary role: providing leadership for the ongoing “business of the campus.” The job of president/chancellor goes on; you must focus on the rest of your job as well as the crisis itself.
  • Hire a public relations person with experience in crisis communications. A well-managed crisis may not be perceived as being well-managed if your university’s communication efforts are poor. Similarly, a crisis that is managed poorly may not be perceived that way if your crisis communications are well-executed.
  • All crises are monumental at the time they occur. It’s important to have an adviser who can provide perspective.
  • Don’t listen to any single, particular constituency. However, listen to every voice, because each individual is viewing the crisis from a unique perspective.  Doing so allows you to forge a response that is multifaceted and addresses issues that likely will surface among constituent groups.

Advice from Ray Bowen

Bowen shared these tips:

  • Surround yourself with people who have common sense and take their advice.
  • Listen to lawyers, but do not allow them to make decisions for you. Doing the right thing is far more important than worrying about preempting any legal fallout.
  • Speak with one voice. The president does not need to compete with system chancellors or presidents and board members who may want to be on television, or with other people who may want to speak on behalf of the university.

Advice from a Long Career of Managing Crises

I have had a long career in public relations at a Fortune 500 company and at five different higher education institutions, and I too have faced a number of crises, including a disease outbreak, a chemical explosion, fires, electrocutions, a kidnapping, active shooters, bomb scares, rapes, plane crashes, multiple deaths resulting from car crashes, hurricanes, drownings, suicides, and murders. With the management of each crisis came a new lesson.

To that end, I asked myself, what advice for campus leaders would I share?

  • Transparency is paramount, much to the chagrin of university lawyers. Transparency goes a long way toward restoring confidence in your leadership and, ultimately, in the university.
  • The circumstances of a crisis should not be met with protocol paralysis. Because a crisis often requires quick assessments and decisions, chancellors and presidents need to empower subordinates to make the necessary decisions, even without presidential approval. The pace of a crisis is often faster than normal university procedures allow. Decisions often need to be made “right then, right now.”
  • The entire senior leadership team needs to be knowledgeable about an institution’s crisis response plan and their respective roles. As someone who has evaluated more than 100 drills at universities, corporations, cities, municipalities, and counties, I know that the absence of senior leadership at these exercises is common. Yet leading a response without an intimate familiarity with the plan and with the specific role each person will play, can create a separate crisis itself—a management crisis or a void of leadership altogether.
  • Because universities often must interact with outside entities, university leaders should ensure their institution’s emergency response plan is compatible with the Incident Command System (ICS), a federally mandated protocol established following Sept. 11. When response plans are based on the same operating system, rescue and recovery among numerous agencies become relatively seamless. Processes and protocols are automatically integrated. Documentation is consistently applied. An emergency plan not based on the ICS is equivalent to trying to have a meaningful conversation with a group of individuals who each speak a different language. In a crisis situation, there is little time for either interpretations or explanations.
  • After experiencing different crises, it is clear to me that many of them could have been prevented in the first place. Leaders should consider creating a task force charged with (1) identifying their university’s vulnerabilities and risks—in protocols, processes, and procedures, as well as in overseas exchange or academic programs, facilities and infrastructure; and (2) recommending action steps to address each vulnerability and risk. An ounce of prevention is truly worth a pound of cure.