What College Leaders Need to Know About Responding Rapidly to a Crisis

An urban college campus

How do you manage a crisis in a world that expects instant response and immediate communication?

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.


  • You can read an interview with this panel in this earlier article.
  • And here — in this article — you can listen to a brief audio interview with Colonel Cardon Crawford about the need for “emergent crisis management,” and how emergency crisis management differs from the crisis communications planning of the past. A transcript of the interview follows.
  • You can also meet Colonel Cardon Crawford and Major General Jim Boozer in person for an in-depth training at the upcoming conference Crisis Leadership for Higher Education.

Transcript of the Interview

Sarah Seigle Peatman: What is it about higher ed as an industry that makes crisis such a difficult thing to handle?

Photo: Col. Cardon CrawfordCol. Cardon Crawford: Sarah, that’s a really good question, and I would say that higher ed is simply not trained for emergent crisis management. Nor should they be. Our focus is emergent crisis management – the first 24 or 36 hours. You know, in the past, before instant, real-time communication, there was a little more time to react and be reflective in their response — because higher ed excels in reflective thought. You know, it’s what they do.  But in emergent crises, you have to know what you’re going to do right now. So, that luxury of time has now been taken away.

A lot of times people think that we’re about crisis communication. That’s some of what we do, but we’re much broader than that. This is about the duties and responsibilities of the college or university president and their senior staff during an emergent crisis. Emergent crisis management is now a core skillset. We believe it’s a core skillset that all colleges and universities need in order to protect their brand. What we are trying to do with this seminar is provide that framework and thought process that will help colleges protect the brand they have worked so hard to develop. And that’s connected to many things. It’s connected to the recruitment of students, the recruitment of good faculty and staff, donors, athletes, and the list goes on.

Sarah Seigle Peatman: Experiencing you guys delivering this conference in the past, one of the things that struck me is that I feel like I witnessed “ah-ha” moments, as the attendees in the room grasped the kind of boldness and decisive action that responding to a crisis actually takes. Cardon, to a point you made earlier in the conversation, higher ed is a very reflective environment, with shared governance and a kind of diplomatic culture, and that’s one thing that makes it really wonderful. But I think sometimes that’s at odds with the bold leadership and the take-charge attitude that one has to have in the midst of a crisis.

Col. Cardon Crawford: I think here’s the biggest danger, and like General Boozer said, you have got to be able to learn to operate in an imperfect environment without perfect information. And General Boozer does a great job during the symposium of talking to people about how to do that. He gives great real-world examples of that.

Here’s what I think the danger is. Quite frankly, I think, and naturally so, that most people in leadership positions — whether it’s in higher education or other places — think, “You know what? I don’t need this. I can do this.”

And I understand why people would think this. They are very smart people; they are accomplished, and they are good at what they do. But the fact is, this is something that they don’t do. And the problem becomes: Once that crisis occurs and you assemble your senior team and the president … when you say, “what do you do now?” … people start to look around the room. Now, eventually, they will probably figure it out, but the problem is that time is slipping away and that’s an element that you no longer have the luxury for.

Sarah Seigle Peatman: Thank you, Cardon. I look forward to talking further.