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'Managing the Unthinkable'
A new book aims to give college presidents and other leaders the tools to navigate and survive a crisis.
A devastating tornado touches down, claiming the lives of six university students and affecting more than 1,200 without homes. A plane crash kills a team and its coaches. A night of fun goes drastically wrong when a bonfire suddenly collapses, killing 12 students.
Campuses experience almost every crisis imaginable, from natural disasters to sexual harassment allegations and shootings. Being prepared for each one isn’t always possible, which is why Managing the Unthinkable: Crisis Preparation and Response for Campus Leaders (Stylus) discusses how campus leaders can effectively deal with situations of all sorts.
The editors, Gretchen M. Bataille and Diana I. Cordova, collected case studies that give campus leaders information on how they can prepare for and deal with a crisis. (Bataille is president of GMB Consulting Group and former president of the University of North Texas; Cordova is the clinical professor of executive education and academic director of the Kellogg Executive Leadership Institute at Northwestern University.)
The contributors -- a mix of presidents and other senior administrators, public relations experts and lawyers -- offer advice that comes from their own firsthand experiences. The book touches on how and why college presidents should create a crisis leadership team that can effectively tackle any emergency. It also shares information on how college presidents should handle the media and why creating a good communication strategy is crucial. The editors participated in the Q&A via email.
Q: It almost seems like an oxymoron to talk about preparing for situations that are "unthinkable." How prepared can one be for things that can't be predicted or envisioned, and in general, are you talking about preparation for lots of individual eventualities or a more general approach to be prepared for anything?
A: Presidential preparation is really about communicating a “can do” mindset that the cabinet and other institutional leaders understand. That mindset is undergirded by frequent reminders of individual responsibilities, an understanding of protocols for dealing with various crises, and a philosophy that puts students’ and employees’ safety and well-being at the top of the list of considerations at all times. There are, of course, specific preparations for the incidents that are common -- bad weather, fires, or overzealous crowds on campus. It is the “unthinkable” that can throw a campus into chaos because it is difficult to think about student deaths, shootings, sudden and unexplained weather phenomena, or freak accidents. Those are the events that “test” the leadership.
Q: How can colleges spot a potential crisis before it happens? What needs to be done?
A: Of course, some crises such as winter storms are predictable, but those are just part of the daily responsibilities for the campus leaders. Campus leaders can learn from what happens on other campuses. It is possible to avert crises by a review of policies, for example. After the Penn State incident, campuses reviewed their policies on background checks for faculty and staff working with children in summer camps. Sometimes the unfortunate situations on another campus can prompt preventive action for the rest.
Q: College leaders already have some sort of protocol for handling a crisis, but what differentiates a solid plan from a weak one?
A: Any plan is only as good as the senior administrators’ ability to carry it out with integrity and transparency. Solid plans derive from knowing the federal and state mandates, having a crisis team ready to step up, and leadership that encourages swift action when necessary and careful deliberation when the situation may result in unexpected consequences if handled poorly. While campus administrators cannot possibly prepare for every "unthinkable" crisis scenario, there are things they can do to maximize their chances of dealing successfully with these dramatic events.
One such action is to ensure that the team is well-practiced, agile, and well-prepared to handle a wide range of crisis scenarios. Another is having well-established relationships with local, state, and federal agencies as well as the media.
Q: Are there traits that make some individuals better able to maintain composure in situations like the ones you describe, or can everyone manage this with the right set of strategies and approaches?
A: What the contributors of the book make clear is that leaders who have integrity and have already established credibility with various constituents will have a better chance at addressing a crisis on campus. Recent examples demonstrate that leadership does matter and even with the right strategies on paper, some campus leaders still falter.
Q: At various points the book talks about presidents who delegate many responsibilities to their colleagues and staff and others who micromanage. How do presidents effectively balance that, especially during a situation where decisions might need to be made quickly and updates need to be provided to the public?
A: Several contributors provide advice about the need to rely on staff with various strengths and talents. While the president should be the initial spokesperson and the representative at critical moments, the leadership must rely on those who are closer to the situation, and that differs depending on the crisis. Sometimes it is the campus police or the campus attorney who needs to be the spokesperson; other times the vice president for student affairs or academic affairs must take the lead. A savvy president will delegate decision-making to those who are in a better position to act on specific issues.
Q: How important is it for the university president to remain in the public’s eyes during a crisis? Could there be any kind of danger from being seen too much?
A: Our contributors didn’t seem to think any president would suffer from being seen too much. The reality is that often there is little new to report and in those cases someone else should be the spokesperson, relieving the president from the task and having the president speak when a critical decision has been made or a serious change in circumstances warrants the president’s appearance.
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