Leadership after Mizzou

Three principles for driving campus conversation

December 10, 2015

It’s natural to think of the events of recent months (at Mizzou, Duke, UCLA, Claremont McKenna, Princeton or SMU, just to name a few) as individual crises to be managed. Each campus has all the pieces that typically contribute to a crisis: A high profile event, a surge in media coverage, well-organized activists, administrators on the defensive.

Without question, college communicators need to have a plan in place to respond when tensions, for whatever the reason, ignite on campus.

But thinking about these issues strictly through a crisis communications lens misses an opportunity. Communicating a clear and comprehensive strategy on diversity and inclusion requires a much longer term focus, driven by leadership and a healthy amount of transparency.

So, where to start? How about with the following three principles?

Build Relationships with Stakeholders

On too many campuses, senior administrators have been slow to hear the concerns raised by underrepresented groups on campus. Why? Often, it’s because they simply don’t have strong relationships with the student organizations, alumni groups and faculty that matter on issues of diversity and inclusion.

The bottom line: The only way to have a finger on the pulse of campus climate is to talk to the people that are most likely to experience bias. Ask questions. Find out if members of underrepresented groups feel comfortable coming forward to report their experiences. Look at your campus climate survey. If it doesn’t exist, create one.

The goal is to build relationships and partnerships that proactively lead to understanding and productive dialogue. If those relationships aren’t there today, it’s not too late to start building them. At Purdue University, for example, President Mitch Daniels is engaging directly with activists and the heads of nearly 30 student organizations in a campus-wide listening effort. Daniels and the activists don’t agree on everything, but it’s a move in the right direction.

Be Honest about Campus Climate

With the perspectives of major stakeholders as a guide, college presidents then need to honestly assess their campus climate. What campus leaders say – and how they say it – matters. If retention rates for underrepresented groups compare poorly to majority populations, be willing to say so. If a bias incident occurs, call it out. If faculty diversity is sub-par, admit as much. Remember to take stock in areas of progress as well.

Consider last year’s incident at the University of Oklahoma. When students were recorded singing a racist chant, President David Boren minced no words in immediately condemning it as “disgraceful” and “reprehensible.” He followed up with initiatives aimed directly at campus climate and inclusion. At Occidental College – a liberal arts college where students of color make up 42 percent of the student body – administrators are openly discussing how diverse demographics do not inherently equate to true inclusion.

Students and faculty don’t expect that campuses will become bias-free overnight. They do expect that presidents and administrators honestly acknowledge the ways that bias is still present.

Create a Transparent Plan for Moving Forward

And, of course, the natural extension of such an honest assessment is a clear commitment to doing better.

Campus partners must be engaged. Indeed, the energy of campus activists should be embraced as an asset. Majority populations, too, have a voice and they can and should play an important role. Goals must be clear, because transparent communication to stakeholders on- and off-campus is vital. And progress must be measurable. Campus climate is about far more than demographics and survey data, but those can be key places to start.

Once a plan is in place, make sure your key audiences know about it. From alumni events to university magazines, review your existing channels for informing and inviting community involvement in your diversity and inclusion work. Present your plan to stakeholders. Ask for feedback. Make changes based on what you hear. And, importantly, build a robust digital home where you can report on your progress (Occidental, Knox, and Colgate offer a few examples).

At a time when many campuses are at a loss for direction when facing racially charged activism, those that take a proactive stance – as Yale did late last month – have an opportunity to set an example for how to drive real, substantive change.

Campus conversations about race and diversity may be uncomfortable, but they shouldn’t be paralyzing. After all, this conversation is just beginning and it’s one leading administrators must join with confidence.

Jonathan Coffin is a vice president at strategic communications firm VOX Global, and former associate vice president for communications at DePauw University. Dirck A. Hargraves Esq. is a senior vice president at VOX Global, where he counsels clients on strategic alliances, and diversity and inclusion initiatives.


Back to Top