It has been a long year for college and university presidents.
Leaders in higher education have been humiliated over a spate of high profile crises which have triggered screaming headlines and fodder for the 24/7 cable news talking heads. Institutional responses have ranged from savvy to shortsighted, deft to dysfunctional and comforting to comical.
And unlike any recent period of time, these crises have caught a larger than normal number of presidents many of them now either ex-presidents or on their way out -- in a spiraling web of controversy, including Harvard's Lawrence Summers; Case Western Reserve's Edward Hundert; William Cooper of the University of Richmond; Indiana University’s Adam Herbert; and American University’s Benjamin Ladner. And of course there is the now infamous Duke lacrosse scandal, which ensnared the Durham, N.C. institution that was previously known primarily for high quality academics and a perennially ranked men’s basketball team.
Readers of Inside Higher Ed watched the Duke lacrosse scandal with rapt attention, we suspect, but few may have realized the impact that still unfolding story had on North Carolina Central University, the home institution of the victim, a 27-year-old mother of two who alleges that she was sexually assaulted by members of the Duke lacrosse team. As the nation watched the Duke story unfold, students at NCCU -- a historically black institution -- asked two simple questions: If our football players were accused of sexually assaulting a white student, wouldn’t they have been arrested, charged, convicted and sentenced by the end of the first day? Isn’t there a double standard here based on race?
You can see the impact those questions, which reverberated through the campus, could have on an institution inflamed with a rising tide of controversy. It demanded an immediate and effective response with the administrative team meeting around the clock with students and student leaders. Most important, the goal in each conversation and town hall campus meeting was to encourage reflection and calm.
Our experience – which includes laboring as a vice president and chief spokesperson during the firing of Bob Knight as Indiana University’s basketball coach and serving as chancellor of NCCU -- shows that higher education controversies and dealing with them have many common threads. These include an ability to see the problems coming – few controversies cannot be anticipated; sometimes the timing is a surprise -- to an inability to plan effectively for a crisis to a less than deft response in times of chaos. From those two instances and many others we have weathered in our careers, there are some lessons learned.
First and foremost is this: If your campus has not undergone a crisis, it will. Do not underestimate the importance of crisis planning. When IU fired Knight in 2000, the president, athletic director and vice president of public affairs and government relations received more than 10,000 e-mails -- 99 percent negative, a sizable number profane and some threatening enough to warrant police attention. Students rampaged throughout the campus and burned the president in effigy -- outside of his home. Small numbers of alumni and donors threatened to slam shut wallets. In the long run, however, public support, private support, alumni participation and student recruitment were largely unaffected by the controversy that drew a torrent of national news coverage. Why no lasting impact? Well before the final Coach Knight controversy, IU had an "issues management team," a written and tested crisis document and the senior staff had planned for a variety of sports-related problems emanating from the fiery basketball coach.
Not surprisingly, in high profile crises, presidents -- willingly or not -- increasingly occupy an extraordinarily prominent public position as the crisis unfolds under bright TV lights. Years back, crises on campus were relegated to the PR office. No more. When a crisis hits campus -- binge drinking, sexual harassment, NCAA violations, administrative scandals and all points in between -- the crosshairs increasingly are aimed squarely at the institutional president or chancellor. And how well you respond may go a long way in preserving your institution’s image and reputation -- and your career.
When the Duke scandal erupted -- in the middle of spring break when institutional leaders were scattered nationwide -- the media deluge was immense. Within days of the Duke story breaking, North Carolina Central, with a two-person media relations staff, was bombarded by media requests from the likes of The New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times on the print side; "Real Sports with Brian Gumble" and the "Nancy Grace Show" began live interviews from campus. Fox and CNN were constant campus companions, and one Newsweek reporter had the audacity to go table to table in the cafeteria badgering students to provide salacious information for an upcoming cover story. The media attention was unheard of on the NCCU campus and, as a public institution, there was little way of deterring overly aggressive reporters.
Five years earlier, when the Bob Knight story broke -- also in the midst of spring break -- the first press conferences included 229 reporters and 29 TV cameras, and CNN and ESPN ran portions or all live nationwide.
So what are the lessons we have learned to help colleges and universities better weather the campus crisis storm? Many, and they include:
Understand that a campus crisis is defined as any incident that can damage your image and reputation and weaken your financial stability. As a senior administrator, your job is to protect the image and reputation of the institution and its financial well being. You do this through good, constant and strategic crisis planning. We have interviewed dozens of individuals who have weathered a crisis. Every one of them said they would have been much more comfortable and effective with a fully tested crisis plan in hand -- well before the crisis hit. The plan, as NCCU officials learned, sets the guidelines on issues such as who can speak to the media on behalf of the university, who are key audiences -- faculty, staff and students, prospective students, alumni, donors, business leaders and others -- you must reach immediately in times of crisis and how best to accomplish those key goals.
Many of the most volatile crises colleges face involve issues of race and class. Anticipate these problems, and then ensure that the campus works to create a climate where students and faculty understand and embrace a multiplicity of perspectives. When this climate of diversity is a reality, students and faculty members don't feel they need to violently defend their views. They recognize the legitimacy of differing viewpoints and can have open and sensible discussions where they are able to work to resolve issues of race and class. At North Carolina Central, the administration was committed to promoting open discussion on issues of race and gender. When the Ku Klux Klan was implicated for burning three crosses in separate neighborhoods in Durham in 2005, the university hosted a forum to discuss the issue of race and invited the community. Organizations such as COLORS, a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender student group at the university, had a “Unity March for Gay Pride” in the spring. The campus continues to work to create a Women’s Center and was the first historically black college or university to sponsor The Vagina Monologues.
If you do not have a full issues management team in place, begin one immediately. We recommend that the chief campus communications staff person lead the team, which should include your senior communicators; the provost; dean of students; chief counsel; head of law enforcement; Webmaster; sports information director; and others as deemed necessary. They meet monthly with two regular agenda items: First, what are the upcoming campus success stories that the institution must publicize widely; second, what are the storm clouds on the horizon that may become public crises. How to control the challenge before it becomes a crisis? The team’s input was critical at NCCU in identifying some of the issues the university needed to address. While the administrations of both institutions had connected, there was little or no interaction between NCCU and Duke students. Students yearned for the administration’s guidance as the crisis unfolded. A level of civility on campus was maintained, in part due to an emergency meeting where administrators and students discussed concerns. It was clear that NCCU and Duke students needed to build closer relationships, that students needed to gain a better understanding of what was happening in the case and the institution needed to develop programs to educate students about sexual assault and violence against women.
Ensure that the Issues Management Team designs, tests and fully implements a communications plan that anticipates every possible crisis and outlines how the institution will respond when the inevitable hits the fan. This was invaluable during the seven-month-long controversy at Indiana University. Key points in the plan should include an outline of the most important audiences you must address in times of crisis, a list of possible crises, and a sense of how to respond in one voice -- since reporters salivate when they find administrators who contradict each other in times of crisis.
Develop key talking points and a formal question and answer document and share with administration, faculty, staff, student leaders and alumni representatives who may be contacted by the media. The goal is to control the message and flow of information. Clearly, you can’t dictate what opinions faculty members are going to enunciate during a crisis. But it is essential that faculty is informed and know the institution’s official positions and relevant policies. Conversely, it is far easier to control the message and flow of information from staff and administrators.
Provide media training for key administrators, faculty and students before, during and after the controversy. Use media trainers with experience in higher education, and ensure they teach the tactics, tips and techniques on how to respond effectively to reporters and practice in mock interviews, ideally on TV.
Review and update campus media guidelines to enhance management and movement of outside media on campus.
As the crisis unfolds and subsequently diminishes, note the “teachable moment” opportunity and how institutions can share the history and excellence of the institution, particularly after the crisis smoke has cleared. Once the intense media attention had waned, NCCU continued to receive some calls from the national media. However, the institution turned down interviews they sensed would sensationalize various allegations. NCCU also shared with the national media that it wanted the general public to know more about the university. The New York Times listened and published a front page, 29-paragraph news story.
Ensure that your long-term response includes talking about the legacy of academic excellence, notable alumni and academic excellence.
Well before a crisis, work to build town-gown relationships that are strong and enduring. Few campus crises will not elicit reactions from city and community business leaders and elected officials. Develop a regularly scheduled town-gown team to address common problems and common concerns. This team can be invaluable in times of crisis.
Value, nurture and support your university communications and media team. Few institutional leaders fully appreciate the hard work of the media relations team -- until they find themselves in a national media feeding frenzy.
Fully debrief when the controversy wanes. At Indiana University, the senior administrative team -- months after the Bob Knight firing -- changed athletics department policies to ensure no single coach in the future can attain power and control that exceeds that of the athletics director -- and in rare past cases, the president.
Bottom line: if your campus has not weathered a crisis, it will. Such controversies can have a dramatic impact on your reputation, image and financial stability. Plan for the problems well in advance. And when the inevitable hits the fan, have a team poised to respond effectively to key audiences, using strategic tactics and tips to ensure your key messages reach your most important audiences. That is how to preserve the institution’s image, reputation and financial stability.
James H. Ammons and Christopher Simpson
James H. Ammons is chancellor of North Carolina Central University. In addition to dealing with the Duke lacrosse incident, he survived a mold crisis on his campus that resulted in a 512-bed dormitory being closed two weeks before classes were scheduled to start. Previously, he was provost of Florida A&M University. Christopher Simpson is the CEO of SimpsonScarborough, a marketing, branding, media and crisis communications firm specializing in higher education. He is the former vice president of public affairs and government relations at Indiana University, and his first book on crisis communications will be published later this year.
Presidents and financial aid directors are the two educational leaders on campus who are directly responsible for the success of the whole student, I used to tell audiences, with more than too much bravado.
I was trying to make a point. Every administrator needs to be involved to achieve institutional success, of course. But presidents and financial aid officers deal with a big picture stakes – success or failure of the student.
If the student fails, the institution fails. The president takes the blame.
If the institution fails the student, the student loan may not be repaid. The financial aid officer is on the line.
The latest public crisis in student loans reignites a question that has always haunted me: Why do college presidents too often leave the field of public debate when it comes to the specifics of student loans?
“Unfathomable”, “administrative nightmare” and a “policy backwater” are descriptions of the lending debate that would have encouraged CEO indifference to the politics of student loans in the past.
Collectively, financial aid officers, banks, student advocates and executives of national higher education organizations have controlled the options and the course of the nation’s college financing scheme -- they were the ones with time to deal with the arcane.
Today, however, loans account for more than 30 percent of all payments for college tuition costs. Loan volume has more than doubled in a decade and is still growing. Private college loans, providing funds beyond the federal program limits, have increased by 734 percent in a decade, to $14 billion in the 2004-5 school year.
Can individual college presidents, with so much else on their plates, ignore the foundation, structure and details of the nation’s publicly financed student loan programs, and a thriving private sector alternative?
At their peril. And, at threat to the complicated, but working, system of higher education finance in America.
The latest blow-up is over lender payments to colleges and administrators who designate loan products on preferred lender lists. This is just a seasonal hurricane compared to the climate change in store for student lending over the next decade.
Essential public policy issues, emerging new private sector loan products and direct-to-the-student marketing techniques are going to change the way Americans afford to pay for college.
It can happen with or without college president resolve to assure that the interests of their students and institutions come first.
Off campus “student advocates” or “higher education policy experts” are gaming the current crisis politics to achieve long sought ideological change in these loan programs, which may or may not match a student and institutional requirements.
Among a host of issues, there are some that will directly redefine the nature and extent of student loan availability:
The future of the bank-based Federal Family Education Loan Program (FFELP) and its sibling the Ford Direct Loan Program (DLP), the latter representing about 25 percent of all federally guaranteed student lending. Advocates for government-as-lender will use the latest crisis to limit the bank program and prefer expanded borrowing from the government, not the market place. Sustainability into all economic futures is the issue here. Will the government assure colleges' access to loan-supported tuition financing under all circumstances? Student loans have become the third largest of the nation’s asset-backed securities markets -- after credit cards and mortgages. The private marketplace has made lending at these levels possible. If not the private market place, can the government swallow the growing need for student loans to pay tuition into the future? At the levels of debt that future costs will require? College presidents might want to assure continued direct access to the market place, not exclusively through policy makers who have various and sometimes conflicting agendas.
The role of state-based student financial aid agencies as the Congress and president impose a continued financial squeeze on FFELP administration costs, default prevention efforts and default collections revenues. It could mean the end to federally contracted, state-based guaranty agencies, the student financial aid agency in 27 states that are often the backbone of information and training to colleges, students and families. They are the sponsors of Internet-based, go-to-college and early career and college awareness programs. Many agencies also administer state grants and often the college savings program -- assuring local policy continuity at the state level.
Direct-to-consumer lending, bypassing the college financial aid office and making direct deals with students and parents, may end the current coordinated and guided match between grants, loans and college work -- all without assuring that low-cost, federally subsidized loans are considered before more expensive private loans.
Consolidation of lenders:Sallie Mae’s recently announced sale to two private financial services companies and two of the largest student loan banks (Bank of America and JPMorganChase) is another signal that market forces -- not public interest -- are driving the federally subsidized student loan business. While Sallie Mae holds 40 percent of total FFELP assets and services 10 million students and parents attending 5,600 colleges, new loan volume at growing value is originating not with banks, but with marketing companies that securitize their loans, selling them to American and foreign financial markets.
Time to payoff: With the boom in student loan consolidations, the time to payoff of student debt has lengthened from the nominal 10 years to 15 and 20 and 30 years, in some cases. The cost of college is exploding exponentially after graduation by extending interest-bearing loan payments so far into the future. With a possible average payback time easily approaching 15 years for most future borrowers, is it not time to look at other alternatives? British and European loan programs delay repayments further into work life. ”Student securities” plans based on percentage of earnings are being pioneered by the Robertson Educational Empowerment Foundation, allowing a match between future income and debt. These and other innovations should be explored that avoid mortgaging student futures -- drawing out loan payments and interest expense so far into their future
College presidents most often represent the aspirations of their institutions, faculty, and their clients, the students. The president may be the only policy actor to assure that student loans -- the essential, largest, and growing educational financial scheme of the 21st century -- meets the needs of both the academy and student
Student and family interests should coincided with institutional success. I think only the CEO sees that conjunction and must speak out to assure that government, lenders and the entire higher education community meets the financial needs of both colleges and students into the future.
The times are changing. And college chief executives need to reenergize the student loan debate, assuring that the outcome serves the whole student and his or her institutions.
Robert Maurer, formerly President of New York’s student aid agency, the Higher Education Services Corporation, is a writer and consultant on college financial aid and instructional technologies.