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A nighttime scene of a large mass of students attending a pro-Palestinian rally on Columbia University's campus, with Butler Library lit up in the background.

A pro-Palestinian rally was held on Columbia University's campus in November.

Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis News/Getty Images

A higher education story is a BFD when it crosses into the mainstream. And the story of the three women presidents who testified on campus antisemitism before the U.S. House of Representatives’ Education and Workforce Committee last year was a BFD media frenzy on steroids.

It’s rare that a higher education story like the testimonies of university presidents Claudine Gay, Sally Kornbluth and Elizabeth Magill is covered with the fervor witnessed last December and January. And it is rarer still that the general public’s diagnosis of what went wrong, from a communications standpoint, aligns with ours as higher education leadership and strategic communications professionals. The consensus was that the counsel the three presidents received and the preparation they undertook did not equip them for that historic moment. Two resignations later, we’ve all wondered what they would have done differently if they had known then what we all know now.

The command appearance of Minouche Shafik, the woman president of Columbia University, and the co-chairs of Columbia’s Board of Trustees before the same committee today will allow us to see how a fourth institution and its leaders apply the lessons learned from the experiences of their peers. It’s quite telling that the committee hearing title is listed as, “COLUMBIA IN CRISIS: COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY’S RESPONSE TO ANTISEMITISM.” The challenge before Shafik is clear: She must navigate away from what has been assumed to be and is labeled as a crisis, especially when the reference could apply to her institution or her tenure.

It is nearly impossible to prepare anyone to respond to an openly hostile group of legislators seeking solely to score points and create buzzy clips that will rile up the base and provide fundraising fodder. Yet, we know from working at the intersection of leadership and strategic communications that there are some core truths about higher education that should be shared with the committee. As we looked ahead to the hearing and how it might differ from the spectacle four months ago, we thought it might be helpful, if not therapeutic, to identify ways Shafik could do better, for the sake of her career, her institution and higher ed as a whole.

Focus on students. While last year’s hearing purported to be about how leaders were preventing and/or addressing antisemitism on their campuses, it quickly shifted to personal attacks and antagonism aimed at the presidents. The Columbia leaders should focus their comments on how they are providing the resources and environment necessary for a safe learning and living environment regardless of where the verbal, and personal, body blows land.

Understand the role. Shafik was not summoned to illuminate, provide context or nuance, or clarify. This is not a teachable moment, but instead is an experience to survive. She was called to serve as a foil for members of the committee who are attempting to score political points with their base by demonizing elite institutions of higher education through quotable one-liners.

Rehearse that role. The hearing will be contentious because polarization of higher education is trendy and December’s hearing illustrated that antagonism is a winning political strategy. Committee members are more likely to be featured on social media or in the news when passions run high; however, shouted and repeated questions don’t require responses to be delivered in a similar fashion. In this case, preparatory sessions spent practicing responses and the masking of emotions—especially when exhausted—will pay dividends in the face of gotcha attempts. After all, people rarely like bullies, but they support those who stand up to them.

Appeal to the base. We are often unabashed defenders of higher education and willingly take on that good fight on behalf of others. Yet it was difficult to come to academia’s defense after December’s Congressional hearing because the presidents’ responses felt off from how we traditionally talk about our institutions and communities. Their responses didn’t include warmth when talking about the students we serve and the work being done to keep them safe, or passion for our impact as educators. And that made the public’s allowance of grace difficult.

To overcome that disconnect and return to how most people experienced their alma mater, we would encourage answers that reflect an institution’s mission and values. Talking about hard things in a civil manner is what we, as an industry, promise to help our students learn to do. That’s our purpose.

Prepare, but don’t over prepare. Shafik had the advantage of watching and studying game tape from the last hearing. That’s helpful, but the odds of the same questions being asked in the same way are slim. We hope that she prepared for the questions she’s most likely to be asked and the ones most dreaded, and more importantly, that she learned to dissect the question so that she can bridge to a response that will appeal to her base and make sense of the work being done on campus.

Plan a communications strategy to include outreach before and after the hearing. Columbia’s president and the board co-chairs have little control over what happens in the hearing room today, but we hope they laid the groundwork for support from their campus, alumni, friends and the higher education community before their testimony. Building this support will require owning any mistakes, talking about successes and sharing supporting data, and correcting misinformation. And their communications efforts after their Rayburn Building appearance should address what they have learned over the past six months, and if/how those learnings have made their campus community safer.

Know that policies aren’t substitutes for leadership. It was clear when watching December’s hearing that the presidents were being asked policy-focused questions, and the moment demanded leadership-focused answers. Policies are intended to set rules and guidelines for our communities, while leaders are tasked with shaping and influencing campus climate, and our communities as a whole model campus culture. Talking about the latter two shifts the conversation away from rule adherence and toward behavior standards and expectations that we associate with safe and supportive learning environments.

Much of higher education will be watching the hearing. And many people across the country will have popcorn close at hand, ready for a show. We are hopeful that a divergent approach to preparation by Shafik and her board co-chairs will allow for a different experience than the presidents of Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and University of Pennsylvania had—one that is devoid of scandal and truer to the ethos of our industry.

Teresa Valerio Parrot, Ed.D., A.P.R., is principal, and Erin A. Hennessy is executive vice president, of TVP Communications, a national communications and leadership agency solely focused on higher education. Valerio Parrot co-edits Inside Higher Ed’s “Call to Action” blog focused on higher education marketing and communications.

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