August Homework for College Leaders

Presidents, board chairs and other trustees should spend time now thinking about how best to prepare for potential crises that may arise in the fast-approaching new academic year, Margaret Dunning advises.

August 8, 2019
 
 
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Summers used to be a quiet time on American campuses, but there’s no off-season anymore. Higher education institutions now regularly face financial difficulties, student and faculty demands, industry disruption, and other challenges that can attract negative public attention. The spotlight on colleges and universities makes it necessary for presidents, board chairs and other trustees to spend time in the early weeks of August thinking about how to best prepare for potential crises that may arise in the fast-approaching new academic year.

Here are some tips for those college and university leaders based on my decades of providing strategic and crisis media relations support to institutions, as well as on my own experience as a higher education trustee.

As a board chair, your first assignment should be a review of the probable issues your college or university will face in the immediate future, as well as what might occur two to three years out. Advance planning is a vital component of any crisis-communications strategy. Think about how effective governors and mayors plan for potential disasters. The same can be done on campuses, and it will allow your institution to respond faster and have fewer unforced errors when a challenge does, in fact, occur.

Ultimately, a board chair, along with executive committee members, should run through a series of questions with the campus leadership, such as:

  • How well is the college or university prepared to effectively address its key challenges?
  • Has a team been identified to be on point before, during and after a crisis?
  • In what specific ways can the board be most helpful?

Another important step in preparing for the upcoming months is to identify outside legal counsel and line up a firm well before the institution faces a crisis. Carefully consider who has the most expertise in Title IX issues, for example, or in negotiating an unexpected leadership transition. Too often, I have worked with colleges and universities that rely on a local firm or a friend of a board member when other legal counsel would have been a far better choice.

Other tips:

All board members should be familiar with the cultural background of their institution and the issues it has faced over time. How have challenging issues been addressed in the past? Was the approach successful or unsuccessful? It may be that the board must focus on helping the president change the culture in addition to handling whatever risks the institution may face.

In recent years, for example, some institutions have been caught flat-footed when responding to questions about past connections to slavery or to controversial donors. Boards should start with a simple review of the institution’s history. Also, they should know whether any buildings, conference rooms or classrooms have problematic names associated with them. What’s the institution’s policy for naming rights? Should it be modified? Should any current names be removed?

The president, board chair and other trustees should understand clearly their respective roles and responsibilities. Presidents run higher education institutions, not the chair. Chairs are often the leaders of local or national businesses and forget that board service means guiding presidents, not dictating actions. They should avoid writing copy to be sent to the campus community over the president’s signature, for example.

The board chair and other trustees should be familiar with social media and the positive and negative role it can play in a crisis. That does not mean being an expert on Twitter, Instagram and other channels but rather knowing enough about the landscape to be helpful during discussions on best next steps. A board chair recently told me to “stop people from tweeting” negatively about the institution, which was hardly helpful or realistic.

The institution should have a plan in place for monitoring social media conversations if a crisis occurs and for deciding how the institution should respond. The board should understand the institution’s protocols, so they’re not alarmed by the often appallingly negative commentary prevalent on social channels. A general rule of thumb is to post statements sent to the community and to correct factually incorrect information but to avoid engaging in an endless back-and-forth. And the board needs to remember social media is handled by the institution, not the board.

During a crisis, the chair should remind board members not to talk with media representatives about what is occurring. It’s important board members resist feeding the rumor mill or offering off-the-record intel during a time of crisis. If news-media representatives contact them, board members should refer such inquiries to the designated college or university spokesperson. To help prevent board members from being caught off guard when approached by others, such as parents and funders, the institution’s communications team should prepare talking points. It’s crucial the board speak with one voice to avoid misinformation and confusion.

The chair and board members should support the administration as much as possible. Depending on what’s happening on the campus and what’s appropriate, they should consider joining the president at campus gatherings and briefings. Trustees should convey calmness and strength and stand behind the administration until the situation is resolved.

After the challenge has passed, the board chair should ask the president to give the board an assessment of the crisis strategy, what worked and what didn’t, and what steps the college or university will be taking to better prepare for the next issue. Also, over the longer haul, the board nominating committee should weigh how a potential trustee might be helpful in a time of crisis when it considers those who are the best candidates for the board.

This is not a comprehensive list; it is designed to be just a helpful start. But the jobs of a board chair and president are demanding ones, and no one knows what the future will bring. I hope these suggestions will prompt some fruitful homework assignments as the new school year rapidly approaches.

Bio

Margaret Dunning is a managing partner of Finn Partners and leads the firm’s higher education practice. She serves on the Board of Trustees of Trinity Washington University and is an officer of the Federal City Council and a past board member of the Economic Club of Washington, D.C.

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