Get Ready Now for the Next Campus Crisis in the Trump Era

Defining a crisis-management protocol to cope with the president’s leadership style is critical

February 27, 2017

If there’s one thing the new president has shown us, it’s that his Twitter account can generate its own kind of campus emergencies. A few Fridays ago, his first immigration ban created chaos of many kinds, including in higher education. Besides emergency work to help students, faculty, and staff affected by the ban, many colleges and universities had to quickly address numerous other issues: What are our related policies on enrollment, financial aid, immigration enforcement, overseas study, and more? Which campus offices should be brought immediately into the conversation? Should we make announcements to the campus only, or to alumni and parents too? With what information, and when?

The following Tuesday, when violence broke out at UC Berkeley over the scheduled speaking appearance of a white supremacist, the president tweeted, “If U.C. Berkeley does not allow free speech and practices violence on innocent people with a different point of view - NO FEDERAL FUNDS?”

And just like that, colleges and universities were compelled to review their free-speech policies and come to a reckoning with the language and ideas they would convey if put in a similar situation.

Such events tell us: if campuses haven’t already built a crisis-management protocol to cope with this president’s leadership style, it’s time to do so. News reports indicate, in fact, that the administration has drafts of hundreds of executive orders in the works. One way or the other, institutions won’t only be responding to presidential decisions made through normal legislative processes.

Simply waiting for the next crisis of this kind is hardly a good plan. In recent years, many institutions have addressed campus traumas with strong crisis-preparation and enterprise-risk protocols. Schools could go a long way toward preparing now for the next presidentially-inspired campus crisis by putting the same practices to work. Broadly defined, the decision process would look like this:

  1. Make a risk list. In the new environment, which institutional operations most likely expose the institution to greatest risks of sudden national controversies? A short list might include programs having to do with financial aid, voting rights, religious freedom, human reproduction, climate change, and Title IX (and, of course, immigration).
  2. Assess the risk. Should a controversy break out in such areas, would the risk to the school’s reputation and its relationship with its communities be high, medium, or low?
  3. Assemble the information. In areas of sufficient risk, does the college or university have the information assembled that it would need to address an emerging controversy? For example, are clear policies and appropriate information available online? Is a thorough set of FAQs completed that prepare for community or media questions? And, are other critical background details ready for use in making decisions?
  4. Prepare the team. Is the normal crisis-management structure ready on a moment’s notice to encompass these new risks? For example, in areas of sufficient risk identified by the above review, is it clear which staff have oversight responsibility? Who in those areas would best be called upon to inform related crisis decision-making? Are the relevant personnel set to participate in crisis management? And, are they quickly reachable should that crisis arise?

Preparing for incidents that may not happen is time-consuming and demanding. But worse is not being prepared if they do. Higher education has experience planning for certain types of crises. With evidence suggesting that other kinds will now come without warning, it is best to get ready. 

Pete Mackey led communications at such institutions as Amherst College, Bucknell University and the University of South Carolina and now runs the communications firm Mackey Strategies.


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