Responding to a Crisis: Lessons for College Leaders

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What can college and university leaders learn from military leaders about crisis preparedness? Find out from this panel of experts.

Colleges and universities all too often face a series of challenges in responding actively and speedily to a crisis or emergency on or affecting the campus, but they needn’t reinvent the wheel: there are proven models developed in the government and military sectors that can be applied to the higher ed context. To help senior leaders in higher education improve their crisis preparedness, we’ve assembled and interviewed a panel of experts, including Dr. Connie Book, provost and dean at The Citadel; Major General Jim Boozer, US Army (Ret.); and Colonel Cardon Crawford, US Army (Ret.) and Director of Government and Community Affairs at The Citadel. Collectively, this panel of experts has 35 years of experience in higher education and 59 years of experience in the US Military.

In the interview below, we wanted to ask for their perspective on what critical lessons college and university leaders can learn from the military’s approach to crisis action planning. These instructors will also provide an intensive training for presidents and other senior leaders this March in Charleston, SC.

Interview: Lessons for College Leaders

Sarah Seigle, Academic Impressions. Thanks for joining us! When it comes to emergent crisis action training, you’ve become experts at adapting years and years of senior-level experience in the US Military to the higher education context. Talk to us a little bit more about that: what are the connection points you see between crisis action training in the military and crisis action training for higher ed? What can higher education stand to learn from the military’s approach?

Panel. All crises, across any profession, share some common qualities. At its onset, there is the occurrence of the unexpected, which is quickly followed by the luxury of time evaporating as the principals and their senior team contemplate their initial reaction.

In active theaters of operation, the military executes crisis action procedures on a regular basis. Our armed forces face an ever-changing, adaptive enemy who employs surprise to disrupt and defeat our efforts. We must be skilled in rapid decision making without 100% of the information that we would like to have, while maintaining our focus on the strategic end-state of our mission. We do all of this knowing that the results of our actions during these crises will have very real consequences and will likely be broadcast and scrutinized worldwide.

A crisis situation on campus is no different. An immediate reaction is required and will be driven by the university president and senior staff. College presidents are the commanders of their universities, and all commanders have senior staff who are expected to be competent during a crisis. Just like their military counterparts, these senior leaders will not have all of the information that they would like, and there is a good chance that they will no longer be dictating the tempo of “the fight.” Regardless, how the crisis is managed will have long-term consequences. Failing to address the long-term consequences by mishandling the immediate crisis can do irreparable damage to the college’s brand and reputation, which will take years to overcome, and the impact of a damaged or destroyed brand far outweighs the short-term financial cost on which an insurance company may be focused. College administrators in the past have not been faced with crisis management in today’s setting of instant national and global communication access. College administrators must be able to confront crises head on and manage messaging quickly and effectively.

All effective military organizations have a process that is understood and practiced by commanders and their staff at all levels. In the same way, in order to successfully respond to any emergent situation, there must be a framework and process that is accepted and understood by the institution’s senior leadership team. Once a crisis occurs, it is too late for planning what you need to do. That planning has to happen beforehand.

We have developed a ten step process that encompasses the responsibilities of the senior staff, as well as what the senior team should expect from the college president during a crisis. These steps include:

  1. Recognizing a Crisis
  2. Developing your Crisis Action Team
  3. Establishing a Crisis Action Team Leader
  4. Development of a Common Operating Picture
  5. Developing an Initial Press Statement
  6. Identifying Constituent Groups
  7. Identifying Essential Tasks
  8. Development of your Mission Statement
  9. Synchronizing Crisis Events and Normal College Operations
  10. Return to Normalcy

These steps outline the basics of a successful response. CAT/I utilizes military crisis management experience and applies this to higher education crisis management. At our event in March, we will work with you to develop your Crisis Action team, build a framework to synchronize your normal college operations during your crisis action events in order to insure that the core functions of the college are maintained and not interrupted. The process we have designed has been used successfully to manage crises in higher education.

Sarah Seigle. When a crisis arises, what do people at the cabinet level need to be thinking about, that they usually do not?

Panel. Our experience has shown that the real change in thinking during a crisis often needs to occur at the A level of the organization. Organizations must flatten out, or at least reduce their decision-making cycle when faced with an emergent situation. Personnel with unique skill sets who may not be at the C level, can be easily overlooked amid the tensions and multiple demands that a crisis presents.

Whether in the military or on a college campus, you must organize your Crisis Action Team with those people who can best address the particular crisis you are facing. For example, you may not want to select a cabinet-level individual to lead your Crisis Action Team. You may think this person should come from your executive team, but those individuals are often overwhelmed with managing the day-to-day responsibilities of running the college as well as participating in time-consuming crisis action meetings. Being able to tap into someone other than these often over-tasked leaders provides a level of flexibility that can allow you to appoint someone who is able to dedicate all of their efforts towards directing the senior staff and president through the crisis. This person must have the confidence of the president, the respect of the cabinet-level personnel with whom they will work, and the competency to manage the competing demands of the crisis as it unfolds.

Sarah Seigle. If you were to provide the example of one campus leader you know who has successfully navigated a crisis situation, what could you share with us about the approach that person took (a specific thing they did, or an attitude they displayed) that was really exemplary?

Panel. Our experience tells us that more than just one person has to be exemplary in order to successfully navigate a crisis. Recent events at Baylor and Missouri clearly show the repercussions of not getting it right from the outset. If I were to pick out one person, though, I would say Lt Gen John Rosa USAF (Retired), President at The Citadel. He understands the need for an effective CAT team and CAT team leadership and he also knows what that team should be giving him. By having his CAT team focus on the crisis he is able to keep his focus where it belongs: on maintaining the strategic vision of a college president and providing the direction and forethought required not only for the immediate crisis, but in shaping the long-term outcome and perception of the college at the conclusion of the crisis.

Sarah Seigle. Thank you! One more question: What kind of learning experience can people expect at the upcoming Crisis Action Training for Presidents and Senior Leaders?

Panel. It is an experiential, hands-on symposium. You will actively participate in developing a crisis action team, help determine who should lead that team, learn the maximums for an initial press statement and develop the constituent groups should your team be messaging. You will also get recommendations on expectations of a college president during a crisis which mirrors what military commanders do in the same type of situation. On the second day, you will put all of this into play as you work through crisis vignettes to reinforce the steps that we have taught the previous day. We hope to see you there.