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Survival Tactics

June 9, 2009

It's looking like a hot, sticky and scandalous summer is in store for higher education. In recent weeks, controversies of varied size have embroiled college chiefs at the University of Illinois, the University of Nevada at Las Vegas and North Carolina State University, where Chancellor James L. Oblinger resigned Monday.

While the details are different, the stories of growing turmoil at these three institutions are veritable case studies in college crisis -- highlighting the pitfalls of political deals and the perils of poor communication. Oblinger could not appease critics who cried foul over the university’s hiring of Mary Easley, the wife of former Gov. Mike Easley. Easley was fired from North Carolina State Monday, just as newly released records showed that her powerful husband helped orchestrate her hiring.

David Ashley at UNLV and B. Joseph White at Illinois still have their jobs, but the heat is turning up on both of them. Ashley has taken criticism for his communication style -- not to mention his wife’s harsh treatment of staff -- and a university regent recently said “Nobody’s really happy with David right now.” As for White, a Chicago Tribune exposé about the influence lawmakers and other powerful figures have on admissions at Illinois has prompted at least one legislator to call for the president’s resignation.

So how do presidents successfully navigate through these sorts of troubled waters, or -- better yet -- avoid such controversies altogether? Here’s what college presidents and other higher education experts have to say:

Don’t Surprise Your Board – Unless You Have To

If presidents are looking to avoid trouble, they’d be well advised to keep the board in the loop. So says E. Gordon Gee, who after decades in executive administration -- and a fair share of controversy to boot -- now heads Ohio State University for the second time in his career.

“Sometime or other everyone is going to know what you’ve done, so the No. 1 issue is communication,” Gee said.

Anyone who has followed Gee’s career, however, will know he’s broken his own rules before. Such was the case when Gee made the controversial decision to disband Vanderbilt University’s athletics department. Knowing the board would balk at the proposal, Gee told the public before he told trustees, gaining what he called a “strategic” advantage in the political process. He got to frame the story as one about athletic reform, and reluctant board members went along with it as editorial boards applauded the move, Gee recalls.

Of course, Gee says you can only get away with rope-a-doping your board a couple of times before they’ll send you packing.

“You have two strikes,” he said.

Avoid Rolling Disclosure

Nothing gives a controversy legs like dribbling out uncomfortable facts over a period of days or weeks. Indeed, Oblinger’s downfall at North Carolina State is no doubt partially attributable to the perception that the university was slow to tell the full truth. Mike Easley’s involvement was a late breaking news nugget, and one that would have been particularly difficult to defend. The university had also been less than forthright about a severance package for Provost Larry Nielsen, who resigned in connection with the Easley scandal.

“Rolling disclosure is a killer,” says John V. Lombardi, president of the Louisiana State University system. “Sometimes you’re persuaded to believe that you have a controversy and it’s got eight parts, and you say ‘If I talk about Part One it will go away.’ In today’s world no one can get away with Part One.… Pretty soon you’ve got eight stories and you still haven’t solved the problem.”

Make Friends Before You Need Them

The time to get to know your chief of police is not at 4 a.m. when a dormitory catches fire or your football team gets in a bar fight. Forging relationships of trust with community leaders, law enforcement, big donors, beat reporters and other stakeholders should be Job One for a new president, according to Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, president emeritus of George Washington University.

“You want to have a bank account of friendships and relationships that you can draw on,” he says. “If people know you and they know you’re a stand-up guy, they’re a lot more forgiving than if they always thought you were a little sneaky.”

For Trachtenberg, who is white, making inroads into Washington’s majority black community was an important step.

“I made it my business when I came to Washington to go every Sunday to a different black church,” he says. “So subsequently, when there were issues about race relations, I had friends.”

Establish Clear Rules Upfront

Whether it’s an admissions scandal or a controversial hire, it’s too late to define acceptable practices once the story breaks. Robert Atwell, president emeritus of the American Council on Education, says it’s wise for presidents to quickly and clearly define areas that are simply outside of their purview.

“One of the things a president coming into one of those [selective] institutions should say is ‘I don’t mess with admissions. I don’t do admissions. Admissions are going to be done by the professionals and not by me,’ ” says Atwell, who was president of Pitzer College in the 1970s. “And they could go on and say ‘We don’t do political favors’ … but you know the pressures are there.”

Setting clear policy, however, doesn’t mean there will be easy answers. Presidents can stay out of admissions, but that doesn’t mean that potential donors, for instance, won’t come asking for favors. So should presidents risk losing a major gift to preserve the integrity of the admissions process?

“Both are problems,” Atwell says. “There is no answer to that question that gets you home free. You’re going to take heat either way on those kinds of things. It’s very important for a president to be sure that his board or her board will stand behind them. Setting rules in advance is a good idea.”

'Take Nothing for Granted'

Presidents are often hired to solve problems, so it’s no wonder they spend most of their time looking into what’s not working on campus. It’s dangerous, however, for presidents to ignore the things they think are running smoothly, according to Jay Hershenson, senior vice chancellor for university relations at the City University of New York system. A donor who's happy one day can be alienated the next. A strong program can lose a few key players and be in trouble.

“Taking nothing for granted means that [presidents shouldn’t] only pay attention to the trouble spots,” says Hershenson, who has worked for six CUNY chancellors since the mid-1970s. “Pay attention to your supporters, to your allies, to your donors, to those who have the best interests of the institution at heart. Do not only pay attention to where the squeaky wheel makes noise.”

Anticipate, Anticipate, Anticipate

The most perilous controversies in higher education often involve a president who gets caught off guard. Preparing for controversy before it happens is a key tactic to presidential survival, Lombardi says.

“A lot of it has to do with anticipating the landmines,” he says. “These cases are not unusual -- these things everybody is getting all cranked up about.… We’re all under pressure to do things for important people. We’re all under pressure to satisfy constituencies.”

By understanding that the rich and powerful will try to punch favors, for instance, a president can develop strategies for satisfying those people without sacrificing a predetermined ethical standard, Lombardi says. Oftentimes this means giving a person only part of what they want.

“You try to find alternative ways to accomplish what the goal is,” he says.

Surviving Isn’t Always Best

Some of the most respected college presidents haven’t survived at all. While there are a handful of tactics that can help presidents persevere through a scandal, sometimes they can’t do so if they hope to keep their integrity intact. Atwell recalls a few of higher education's profiles in courage, counting Myles Brand among them.

As Indiana University's president, Brand made the controversial decision to fire the head basketball coach Bobby Knight, a Hoosier legend known as much for his violent temper as his unprecedented winning record. Brand stayed on as president for a couple of years after the firing, but he sacrificed a great deal of support from fans and alumni who were infuriated by the decision. Even though Knight had many critics, the easiest way to maintain local support would have been keeping him on, Atwell suggests. Brand did otherwise.

“He had to put himself on the line and he did, and he’s one of my heroes in this business for having done the right thing,” Atwell said.

Sometimes even the most ethically bound presidents can’t avoid controversy, according to Sheldon Steinbach, former vice president and general counsel at the American Council on Education.

“You can do all you can to prevent X, Y and Z, and sometimes it just doesn’t work,” says Steinbach, now senior counsel with Dow Lohnes, in Washington. “That doesn’t mean you don’t try, because what’s your alternative?”

 

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