Free Speech and Religion

How Universities Can Lead in a Time of Turmoil

September 5, 2017  • Karen Gross & Chris Messina-Boyer

A recent article in InsideHigherEd focused on the challenges facing the new president of Duke University, including his authorization of the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue at the entrance of the university’s chapel. The article references other campuses across our nation dealing with similar issues about statues and monuments.

Duke is not alone in facing these and other challenges during the 2017-18 academic year. Yes, there will be debates about statues and building names. In truth and for the record, these issues did not start with the so-called ‘Unite the Right’ rally in Charlottesville early August. Just look at controversies at both Princeton and Yale this past year.

Universities seem beset with controversy these days. There are speakers who raise the ire of groups on campus and protests (loud and proud, and perhaps violent) over racism, sexism, sexual harassment and assault. There is the presence of ongoing war and the possibility of a new war. There will be concerns over athletics, from the behavior of players and coaches to questionable mascots, band and team names and the health and well-being of athletes. Donors and alumni/ae will also be adding their perspectives, bringing into question existing and future giving. There will be challenges to tenure decisions, controversial emails and tweets by students and faculty, and feckless and incomprehensible behavior by people on campus in positions of authority. Many of these are not new but will take on heightened visibility in today’s rapid-fire cable news and social media environment.

It is no wonder there are so many college and university presidential openings. The position is considered among the most challenging types of employment in today’s workplace. However, there are approaches that leaders should consider before events occur to navigate some of these challenges more effectively. Even though each incident has its own unique features and each campus has its own culture, history and timber, it is vastly better to be prepared.

We have identified strategies that leaders should consider now to help with the handling of the inevitable challenges of the year ahead. Before turning to specifics, there are two overarching philosophical issues informing these strategies and the broader issues they raise. How an institution resolves these issues is subject to discussion and debate; there are no easy answers. Regardless of a school’s final position, there is no way around this reality: campuses in the U.S. (and perhaps abroad) will be hotbeds of controversy in the months and years ahead. and it’s better to be proactive rather than reactive.

Underlying Assumptions

Start with this realization, memorialized commendably in a recent essay by Victor Davis Hanson: we cannot erase history. Yes, we can take down statues and we can protest a horrific past replete with slavery and misogyny. But nothing we do today will eliminate that past. That means we need to own our history, our national history and our personal history. Reflect for a moment on WWII and the Holocaust. We can’t ignore its horror or its reality; it happened. What we can do is find ways to remember and memorialize those who suffered and died.

Next, we need to recognize that there is no one way for a nation or an individual to “own” a bad past. We are forever changed by our past and how we deal with that past is as varied as we are varied as nations and people. For some, museums honoring those who died is valuable and sufficient. For others, it is writing books or articles or creating artworks and music. For still others it is education – to insure the preservation of memories.

What this means for campuses is that they cannot erase who they were, and the ways they own their past will vary. We need to be open to a wide range of options. There is no fixed recipe for recognizing our history.

Strategies to Deploy

Here are six strategies to consider in preparation for the year ahead:

Strategy One:  Take an institutional and community inventory. What names, monuments and remembrances are on campus and in the community? What was the process for naming the buildings? Were buildings named after donors or those with ties to the campus or to history more broadly? What are the criteria for naming buildings now? And, in a local community, how is history told – the history of the town and the businesses there? How is the past memorialized? Look at the upcoming academic and athletic calendar; are there “lightning rod” issues? Are there: team names that will invite controversy; bands or comedians that could inflame; speakers that could incite; or traditions that could be misinterpreted or challenged? And a catalogue of relevant state and federal laws would be useful, i.e. can torches be carried in the open, what sorts of permits are needed for protests.

Strategy Two:  Convene a wide range of individuals on and off campus to start thinking through how to deal with potential protests, violence and demonstrations. Have a conversation with the local police. Better to engage them before something bad happens. Talk to the mayor or town supervisor. Consider the voices of students and alumni/ae. Consider faculty development on how to deal with contemporary issues in the classroom. Do we proceed with the assigned material? How will deaths from terrorism or violence whether here or abroad be addressed? Repeat the word “communicate” 20 times a day.

Strategy Three: Develop quality antenna across campus. Learn to listen to what people are saying, even if they are not saying it to leadership. Ask student affairs staff what students are talking about. Ask coaches too. Listen to those who want your ear – in person or via social media. Read the social media on your campus. Walk the campus – visit different parts of it weekly. Schedule it: Dining hall; student center; graduate schools; quadrangles; faculty center; athletic facilities; residential hall common areas; events on campus. Walk and listen. Try this question: What can I do to make your life on campus better? Or, is there anything happening on campus that you want to share?

Strategy Four:  Reflect on strategies for dealing with trauma and toxic shock and violence. Work with campus health and counseling center professionals before something happens to learn how to handle these issues when they arise. Read materials on understanding the impact of stress and trauma on individuals and organizations. Identify approaches that may help: consider hotlines that could be easily mobilized; campus locations with trained professionals to serve students; religious figures who could perform services or provide a calming influence or prayers for the injured. Engage with the community mental health professionals and the local medical facilities in the event there are injuries.

Strategy Five: Review university insurance/risk providers and see if they have crisis management programs, and consider how these insurers can help with investigations, public relations, talking points, professional advisors – all as part of the coverage. If the institution’s insurer does not have those services, consider getting a new insurer or adding insurance coverage. It is money well spent and most boards will consider the cost of this type of insurance in today’s world worth approving. Compare and contrast providers to see which offerings are the best fit.

Strategy Six:  College and university leaders must prepare their board of trustees or governors prior to a crisis. Share with them what is happening on other campuses and how those events have been handled (or mishandled) Give them readings on these topics so they can be better prepared. Engage them in discussions of the strategies being deployed, including those involving the local community. Ask if members of these boards would be willing to come to campus in the event a trustee’s presence would be beneficial. Help them with media training and share what they should do or say if and when they are asked questions. Share your own talking points with them and your own leadership views. And personalize your own experiences for them so they know you can handle whatever occurs and that you and your team are prepared and thoughtful and engaged. No one – especially boards – like surprises.

Avoiding Mistakes and Accepting the Challenges

Start with the realization that not every campus challenge will be handled perfectly. These are the times in which we are living and for better or worse, the buck stops on the leader’s desk. There is no one way for leaders to prepare themselves for these events.

Some leaders seek advice from other leaders; some read books that help them frame issues; others talk to spiritual advisers or exercise or mediate or both. In every case, a leader should be authentic and maintain the locus of control internally as opposed to externally. A leader needs to own what happens on campus and how one responds. Others can’t dictate that.

For the record: everyone knows if someone is pretending or reading from a teleprompter. Everyone can tell if a leader is scared: their voice and tone change; the speed of speaking changes. Everyone can also see if a leader has empathy and passion and if they care about the community they are addressing. That can and should come through in difficult times. Leaders can and do model how to respond to bad events on campus. Embrace that role — it is an opportunity to be one’s best self and to help educate students, faculty and staff in a difficult situation. These moments will happen; a strong leader can make them teachable.

The authors offer strategic communications counsel to universities and clients of a university insurance provider.