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“In our haste, we chose the wrong words for the wrong time,” explained Executive Director Steven Smith, speaking for just about everyone who has ever been involved in writing public statements following fraught national developments.

In this case, Smith was reflecting on the decision of his organization, the American Political Science Association, to revise its original statement about the violent Jan. 6 attack at the Capitol. APSA did so because members vehemently objected to an equivocating line of “both sides should do better” that ended the first statement.

Haste, wrong words, wrong time -- one way or another, we’ve all been there and done that. When university presidents release statements about public conflicts, the challenges only grow, because there are so many perspectives listening. It’s easy to want to speak out but harder to get it right, and harder still when the issues that warrant such statements are so potentially volatile. The rhetoric of leaders matters.

Over the last few years, presidents have had to decide whether to share such statements after the 2016 election, the Muslim immigration ban, Charlottesville, the murder of George Floyd, last summer’s protests against systemic racism, after Jan. 6 or all of the above. Each situation brings its own traps, from using the wrong words to speaking in banalities, from saying too much to promising too little.

These dilemmas will not disappear with the arrival of a new U.S. president. Colleges and universities often serve as laboratories for debate of the greatest flashpoints in our culture. College officials will have to continue to decide when to speak out, or not.

Having worked on many such statements, I’ve found a few key questions are worth asking before deciding to weigh in -- and, if so, what to say.

Are core values of the institution being called into question?

If events have violated a fundamental ideal of the university, it’s time to seriously consider saying something. Such ideals require affirmation in good times but often mean the most when being defended against circumstance, misrepresentation or cynicism. Core values should be the foundation on which the statement is built.

Have members of the campus community been especially affected by events?

Such realities create a virtually imperative obligation to speak out. This includes not only events that seem to risk someone’s physical safety, but also when the ethos of inclusion and fairness risks being harmed for any particular campus constituencies.

Is the scale of the event sufficient to markedly affect the campus community?

Making this judgment is one of the toughest that crises raise, and often the pivot point for deciding whether to say something. These decisions should not only weigh the reach of the issue, but also the ethical degree. In other words, does the issue strike so deeply at a core value that absent a statement the perception may be that the value is really not as important as the institution advocates in calmer circumstances?

Do we have something to say that is unambiguous?

Affirming the common values that institutions share is important, but the voice and emphasis should be distinct to the institution’s president. Otherwise, why say it at all? Likewise, if the statement doesn’t assuredly draw a line under certain values, why does it matter? This is where APSA’s initial statement went wrong -- it first drew a line in the sand, but in the end smudged it, making it unclear where the organization actually stood.

How can the statement meet an educational institution’s obligation to teach as much as to inspire?

The statement can’t only look back at the event in question and opine. It also must pivot to provide an outlet for further discussion or learning. This can include, for example, making clear that counseling is available, promising that a panel of faculty with related expertise will soon take questions and share context, or addressing weaknesses in related institutional capacities with announcements of new investments.

Once it is agreed that a statement is needed, the following steps are imperative.

  • Get the statement out quickly. Presidential rhetoric that responds to timely events has a brief half-life of value and believability. The exact timeline depends on the situation, but usually it is only a few days (e.g., two or three) before the statement risks seeming stale upon arrival, an afterthought or the move of a follower rather than a leader.
  • Manage the responses. This includes, if need be,
    • Providing a general email box for replies.
    • Knowing what office(s) or individual(s) are in charge of vetting replies and having a process for rapidly deciding how to handle them.
    • Ensuring that the social media manager/team knows how to handle comments that will almost inevitably emerge on the institution’s social channels in response to the statement.
    • Providing talking points to front-line offices that may receive phone calls or emails.
    • Following up quickly and thoroughly, if the statement promised it, on related opportunities for discussion or forums.

As the 46th president of the U.S. begins his term, an on-edge, divided American society awaits. The odds are high that another crisis challenging higher education to decide whether to speak out looms. Be ready.

Pete Mackey, Ph.D., is president of Mackey Strategies, a consulting firm specializing in communications strategies and management for higher education and nonprofit leaders. He previously led communications at Amherst College, Bucknell University and the University of South Carolina.