Higher Ed Has a Credibility Problem. Here’s How Leaders Can Fix It.

Focus, transparency and a return to core principles lay the foundation for real change.

July 1, 2020

There is a wildfire burning, and it is spreading fast. The COVID-19 pandemic was the match that lit these flames, exposing deep fractures in public and private institutions that have been around for generations. Responses to the pandemic from many of our leaders -- in both words and deeds -- have fallen woefully short, amplifying a serious erosion of trust that grows on a daily basis.

Nowhere are these fractures more evident, this erosion of trust more glaring, than in higher education. For months, we have been watching colleges struggle with the impact of the pandemic in real time, with the financial challenges of returning to campus instruction dominating the public conversation. Despite more than two million Americans having already been diagnosed and infections continuing to rise, we see many universities forging ahead with plans for on-campus instruction this fall. Testing, tracing and physical distancing protocols remain vague and aspirational, leaving more questions than answers about the safety of literally millions of students and faculty.

Adding fuel to this fire in recent weeks is the public outrage at the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks and many other people of color at the hands of police. Black Lives Matter protests have erupted and grown around the world, driven by a deafening call for answers and action. These protests have arrived at the doorstep of university administrators in the form of petitions to take down statues, rename buildings and make real progress in addressing long-simmering deficiencies in social justice on their campuses. These calls for action will only grow stronger this fall when students return. The fire rages on.

The Leadership Void

Against this backdrop of unease and unrest, students, parents, faculty and staff are turning to college administrators for leadership and guidance, yet transparency and open communication by many are still limited. Students and parents want decisive direction and confirmations of purpose from an institution’s leadership, but clear answers remain frustratingly elusive or come laden with caveats that leave open an unsatisfyingly wide range of moral posturing and practical scenarios. Rightly or wrongly, the overarching perception is that higher education institutions are allocating more time and resources to addressing their short-term financial and reputational challenges versus focusing on their educational missions and the societal responsibilities these missions embody.

This perception is not reality, of course. We know that college administrators and their staffs are devoting unprecedented amounts of time, energy and resources to their primary responsibility of delivering the highest level of education possible. Ensuring student, faculty and community safety is a dramatically heightened priority. Many administrators are finally taking initial steps to address festering social justice issues by ridding their campuses of physical representations of past racial inequities. Yet these efforts, preliminary as they may be, are going unrecognized. Key messages are clearly not getting through amid a cacophony of crisis communications, and the misperceptions persist. The gap widens.

Communications Breakdown

A big driver of this credibility gap can be traced to a fundamental breakdown in communications. It’s crucial that leaders in higher education show their strength and help put out these fires. How can leaders of higher education institutions do this? The answers can be found through the best practices of reputation management.

  • Take a stand. Leaders lead -- it is that simple. Get ahead of the questions you know will be asked; now is not the time to shy away from uncomfortable conversations. Silence is not golden when it comes across as an attempt to avoid pressing challenges. Set down markers, even when you know they will have to be revised as the situation evolves. People understand that circumstances are changing almost daily. In the end, your honesty and transparency will be rewarded in the form of demonstrated accountability and strengthened credibility.
  • Elevate students and parents. A recent survey by the American Council on Education found that fewer than 40 percent of presidents rated students and families as having a high level of influence in their decision whether to open this fall. Differentiate yourself and your institution by making a concerted, highly visible effort to listen to these two critical stakeholder groups during the decision-making process. Reach out to conduct surveys and other research into their thinking and concerns. Engage parent groups and student-centric task forces along with trustees, administrators, faculty and staff. Visibly engaging and listening to your core stakeholders will go a long way toward demonstrating their interests are top of mind.
  • Be overly transparent. In times of uncertainty, the more information provided, the better. Tell students, parents, faculty and staff what you know and openly admit what you do not. Share the inner workings of your decision-making process -- who is involved, what options are being considered, the immediate priorities being reviewed, etc. Set a timeline of regularly scheduled updates and stick to that schedule; doing so will instill confidence in your actions, regardless of the progress being made.
  • Emphasize core principles and values. Remind all stakeholders of the core principles and values that your institution has always stood for. These ideals represent your brand and the reputational equity that attract and retain your students, faculty, partners in research and local businesses. These core principles did not change because of COVID-19 or social unrest, they just need to be expanded and enhanced. Opportunities for traditional, face-to-face engagement have been curtailed, so look for new ways to get your messages out to each group of stakeholders. Develop ongoing communication strategies that best target your audiences, whether through digital marketing, online conversations or virtual events that work so effectively in consumer and business-to-business markets.

The Path Forward

Finally, university leaders need to recognize that communicating moral positions and practical decisions to anxious audiences is a heavy lift that requires the specific skills and resources of your communications teams, particularly those who engage students, parents and high school counselors. Now is the time to give them a seat at the table, not keep them at arm’s length. What is called for is not a quick fix, but rather a long-term investment. Give those in admissions, enrollment and student orientation the added resources they need to handle the challenges of the “new normal” -- whatever that ends up being. Options to bring in added resources steeped in addressing these real concerns abound. Take advantage of them and start containing the fire.

Scott Pansky is a co-founder of Allison+Partners and leads its social impact group. Follow him on Twitter at @spansky.


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