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As communications professionals, it is our responsibility to think through the scenarios that may leave our institutions vulnerable to reputational hits. We need to look around corners and try to anticipate what we may face. And we must look for smoke across our campuses and plan accordingly should we see smoldering embers. After all, where there is smoke there is often fire, and fire causes destruction.

This year, I am giving my colleagues a mandate to dig deeper into rumors of ill behavior, impressions of institutional vulnerabilities and the appearance of impropriety, and to meet with appropriate officials on campus to discuss concerning situations and how to proceed with communications plans and/or institutional responses. It is unrealistic to believe that any of us can use plausible deniability to defend our institutions or ourselves.

You aren’t overstepping your bounds if you share concerns about vulnerabilities—ultimately it is your responsibility to identify and plan for these situations. Oftentimes, we know who and what might transition from smoke to fire. We must be honest with ourselves about the expectations our audiences have for campus leadership to protect our communities and our institutions and to be transparent in communicating situations and solutions.

Fortunately (or unfortunately), 2017 provided us with quite a laundry list of where to start our searches.

  • It is impossible to watch the #MeToo campaign gain momentum across industries and not wonder when higher education’s watershed moment will arrive. It could just as easily start with the person we’ve all been told is “harmless,” a title sometimes delivered with a warning to those who listen for it, or from the anonymous social media postings that aren’t exactly clear but provide enough detail to suggest power struggles that extend beyond the classroom or office. Ask if training to prevent sexual harassment is voluntary or mandatory—and if it is required, ensure key offices on campus have 100 percent compliance. Arrange for those same offices to have regular training on reporting responsibilities should they receive a report of harassment, assault or inappropriate relationships. And make sure that your copies and knowledge of policies and faculty/employee handbooks are up to date.
  • We also have been put on notice from the courts of law and public opinion that we cannot ignore warning signs of risky behavior among students and then say we didn’t know of its danger. We have a moral and ethical obligation to maintain the safety of our students and that obligation doesn’t end the moment they step off campus. Penn State was the most recent campus to face critique when a grand jury “issued a blistering report asserting that leaders at the university were well aware of pervasive misbehavior in the Greek system and failed to take action.” Plausible deniability is always a weak defense, but it feels even more disingenuous if a reasonable person can conclude that leaders knew potential (and probable) issues existed and were not investigated.
  • As the person responsible for communications, make sure you are added to the list of those who receive your 990 filing. The ongoing critique of higher education’s costs and values show no sign of lessening, and criticism of the compensation of our highest paid employees is an easy case to make for higher education being out of touch with the rest of America. You have a long enough lead time before 990s are made public to plan truthful communications for any special circumstances or payouts that your institution may be reporting. Did you have deferred compensation hit the books for your president? Was there severance paid to a coach, administrator or tenured faculty member who exited that year? Did anyone receive a bump in pay or bonus in a year when faculty and staff did not receive raises? Will the salaries of your highest compensated employees be viewed as out of line with what others on campus earn?
  • Talk to those who oversee compliance with mandatory trainings for faculty who conduct research. What is the institution doing to communicate the responsibilities faculty, staff and researchers have to maintain compliance with federal law, regulations and guidance as well as align with your institution's policies? Ask to participate in your campus’s training so that you can talk from a position of knowledge should the media have questions. And read up on your campus’s policies that specifically address research protocols so that you know what is expected from your campus researchers and what type of behavior isn’t aligned with best practices and expectations.
  • There has also been coverage of everyday business that the public has a hard time believing is tied to the education of students or is appropriate for institutions of higher learning (yet much of it has a backstory that make the situation understandable). Sit down with your FOIA officer and perform trial searches for potential vulnerabilities. See what comes up when you scan for first class airline tickets. For example, are athletes (including recruits) or administrators flying first class when others are not? Ask to see contracts for dollar amounts larger than $1 million and review the employee contracts for your highest paid coach. Finally, read through the Education Writers Association and higher education trade publications’ websites to see what kind of stories they are reporting that also apply to your institution. It is very, very rare that a wholly unique situation arises in higher education and we should all learn from the experiences of our peers.

All of these queries must be handled with diplomacy and tact. I would never suggest increasing vulnerability for an institution, but the public, courts and elected officials are making it abundantly clear that they are holding us to high standards for behavior and awareness. Make it your 2018 pledge to live this expectation. After all, we all have at least a little bit of smoke on our campuses. Only you can prevent forest fires.

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