When a President’s Health Is the Story

Strategic and human considerations when a leader’s health necessitates communications

February 17, 2016

So much rests on the shoulders of presidents -- they are seen as the embodiment of the mission, vision and values of an institution. They must set the strategic direction of the university, inspire the faculty and staff to advance that strategy, ensure students are engaged, well-educated and safe, keep alumni and donors invested (both emotionally and financially) in the life of the institution, and more.

Often, because the job is so big and those who dare to undertake it seem superhuman, we forget that they actually aren’t. We forget that the person shouldering this great big job is indeed a person. Nothing reminds us of this inconvenient fact quite as quickly as a president being diagnosed with a serious illness.

This reality hit the Cornell University community earlier this month, when President Elizabeth Garrett, who assumed the office less than a year ago, announced that she is being treated for colon cancer. “Because of this treatment and my illness, I will be reducing my travel schedule and lightening my commitments over the next months. The senior leadership of the university will be handling many of my commitments, representing me and keeping me up to date as we continue to move Cornell forward to meet the challenges of the 21st Century,” Garrett said in a Feb. 8 statement.

This news was surely surprising and sobering to the Cornell community on a personal level. But as in so many other situations, campus communicators facing a president’s significant health challenge need to quickly shift from their personal reactions to such difficult news to their professional responsibilities on behalf of the university.

Gathering Information

The first step is gathering as much information as possible. A frank conversation with the president, no matter how uncomfortable it feels to ask probing, personal questions, is a must. The answers will inform not just the plan for sharing information with campus constituents but also how an illness or treatment regimen will be handled short- and long-term.

Start with basics -- understanding the diagnosis, treatment plan, possible side effects, and prognosis. Of course not all this information should be shared publicly, but it will form the foundation on which all else is built, especially once the president has shared his or her thoughts on how they want to manage their illness and their workload.

Questions about that balancing act may help the president refine her or his thoughts. Are they contemplating a leave or will they, like President Garrett, continue to serve as president and call on their leadership team to help? Are there non-negotiable milestones or events the president wants to participate in and lead like commencement, reunion weekend, or a comprehensive campaign kickoff? Can the president’s spouse or partner take on some ceremonial duties if necessary? And perhaps most importantly, at what medical milestones would the president feel comfortable reassessing and possibly revising their plans?

Building a Plan

With this information in hand, a campus communicator can build a plan that shares an appropriate amount of information with internal and external audiences while staying within the bounds of what the president feels comfortable sharing. Thought should also be given to how those who want to share best wishes with or extend offers of support can do so without overwhelming him or her at a time when they are necessarily focused on their health. Colleagues in the development office can be a great resource to manage and respond to these messages.

Think about a timetable for additional updates—they should be often enough to prevent the speculation that begins in an information vacuum but not so often that the president feels as if he or she needs to issue an update after every doctor’s appointment. And finally, vet the plan with the president to ensure it meets his or her expectations and is within their comfort zone, then stay in close communication so that plans and strategies can be tweaked as needed and answers to difficult questions can be drafted.

Follow the Leader

The toughest question that will be asked, perhaps not to the president directly, will be from those who wonder if a president can work and manage a major illness at the same time. It will be asked from a place of love and concern, for both the institution and the person. And while it may never be asked directly to the president, he or she is the only one who can answer it.  No matter what anyone else thinks, we need to follow the lead of our leaders in this situation. Many presidents who have undertaken this balancing act would likely say that the job provides an important sense of normalcy or the necessary motivation to power through treatments.

As President Garrett begins her treatment, her colleagues across campus and around the country and the world are sending their very best wishes for her speedy and complete recovery. Managing a serious illness while leading a complex institution isn't easy, but the very skills and traits that led the Cornell board to select President Garrett will serve her -- and the university -- well during this difficult time. 

Erin Hennessy is vice president at TVP Communications.


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