Lessons From the Front Lines

Having survived the frenzy of campus crises, James H. Ammons and Christopher Simpson share some of what they learned -- and warn that eventually your institution will be in the crosshairs.

October 20, 2006

It has been a long year for college and university presidents.

Leaders in higher education have been humiliated over a spate of high profile crises which have triggered screaming headlines and fodder for the 24/7 cable news talking heads. Institutional responses have ranged from savvy to shortsighted, deft to dysfunctional and comforting to comical.  

And unlike any recent period of time, these crises have caught a larger than normal number of presidents   many of them now either ex-presidents or on their way out -- in a spiraling web of controversy, including  Harvard's Lawrence Summers; Case Western Reserve's Edward Hundert; William Cooper of the University of Richmond; Indiana University’s Adam Herbert; and American University’s Benjamin Ladner. And of course there is the now infamous Duke lacrosse scandal, which ensnared the Durham, N.C. institution that was previously known primarily for high quality academics and a perennially ranked men’s basketball team.

Readers of Inside Higher Ed watched the Duke lacrosse scandal with rapt attention, we suspect, but few may have realized the impact that still unfolding story had on North Carolina Central University, the home institution of the victim, a 27-year-old mother of two who alleges that she was sexually assaulted by members of the Duke lacrosse team. As the nation watched the Duke story unfold, students at NCCU -- a historically black institution -- asked two simple questions: If our football players were accused of sexually assaulting a white student, wouldn’t they have been arrested, charged, convicted and sentenced by the end of the first day? Isn’t there a double standard here based on race?

You can see the impact those questions, which reverberated through the campus, could have on an institution inflamed with a rising tide of controversy. It demanded an immediate and effective response with the administrative team meeting around the clock with students and student leaders. Most important, the goal in each conversation and town hall campus meeting was to encourage reflection and calm.

Our experience – which includes laboring as a vice president and chief spokesperson during the firing of Bob Knight as Indiana University’s basketball coach and serving as chancellor of NCCU -- shows that higher education controversies and dealing with them have many common threads. These include an ability to see the problems coming – few controversies cannot be anticipated; sometimes the timing is a surprise -- to an inability to plan effectively for a crisis to a less than deft response in times of chaos. From those two instances and many others we have weathered in our careers, there are some lessons learned.

First and foremost is this: If your campus has not undergone a crisis, it will. Do not underestimate the importance of crisis planning.  When IU fired Knight in 2000, the president, athletic director and vice president of public affairs and government relations received more than 10,000 e-mails -- 99 percent negative, a sizable number profane and some threatening enough to warrant police attention. Students rampaged throughout the campus and burned the president in effigy -- outside of his home. Small numbers of alumni and donors threatened to slam shut wallets. In the long run, however, public support, private support, alumni participation and student recruitment were largely unaffected by the controversy that drew a torrent of national news coverage. Why no lasting impact? Well before the final Coach Knight controversy, IU had an "issues management team," a written and tested crisis document and the senior staff had planned for a variety of sports-related problems emanating from the fiery basketball coach.

Not surprisingly, in high profile crises, presidents -- willingly or not -- increasingly occupy an extraordinarily prominent public position as the crisis unfolds under bright TV lights. Years back, crises on campus were relegated to the PR office. No more. When a crisis hits campus -- binge drinking, sexual harassment, NCAA violations, administrative scandals and all points in between -- the crosshairs increasingly are aimed squarely at the institutional president or chancellor. And how well you respond may go a long way in preserving your institution’s image and reputation -- and your career.

When the Duke scandal erupted -- in the middle of spring break when institutional leaders were scattered nationwide -- the media deluge was immense. Within days of the Duke story breaking, North Carolina Central, with a two-person media relations staff, was bombarded by media requests from the likes of The New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times on the print side; "Real Sports with Brian Gumble" and the "Nancy Grace Show" began live interviews from campus. Fox and CNN were constant campus companions, and one Newsweek reporter had the audacity to go table to table in the cafeteria badgering students to provide salacious information for an upcoming cover story. The media attention was unheard of on the NCCU campus and, as a public institution, there was little way of deterring overly aggressive reporters.

Five years earlier, when the Bob Knight story broke -- also in the midst of spring break -- the first press conferences included 229 reporters and 29 TV cameras, and CNN and ESPN ran portions or all live nationwide.

So what are the lessons we have learned to help colleges and universities better weather the campus crisis storm? Many, and they include:

  • Understand that a campus crisis is defined as any incident that can damage your image and reputation and weaken your financial stability. As a senior administrator, your job is to protect the image and reputation of the institution and its financial well being. You do this through good, constant and strategic crisis planning. We have interviewed dozens of individuals who have weathered a crisis. Every one of them said they would have been much more comfortable and effective with a fully tested crisis plan in hand -- well before the crisis hit. The plan, as NCCU officials learned, sets the guidelines on issues such as who can speak to the media on behalf of the university, who are key audiences -- faculty, staff and students, prospective students, alumni, donors, business leaders and others -- you must reach immediately in times of crisis and how best to accomplish those key goals.
  • Many of the most volatile crises colleges face involve issues of race and class. Anticipate these problems, and then ensure that the campus works to create a climate where students and faculty understand and embrace a multiplicity of perspectives. When this climate of diversity is a reality, students and faculty members don't feel they need to violently defend their views. They recognize the legitimacy of differing viewpoints and can have open and sensible discussions where they are able to work to resolve issues of race and class. At North Carolina Central, the administration was committed to promoting open discussion on issues of race and gender. When the Ku Klux Klan was implicated for burning three crosses in separate neighborhoods in Durham in 2005, the university hosted a forum to discuss the issue of race and invited the community. Organizations such as COLORS, a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender student group at the university, had a “Unity March for Gay Pride” in the spring.  The campus continues to work to create a Women’s Center and was the first historically black college or university to sponsor The Vagina Monologues.
  • If you do not have a full issues management team in place, begin one immediately. We recommend that the chief campus communications staff person lead the team, which should include your senior communicators; the provost; dean of students; chief counsel; head of law enforcement; Webmaster; sports information director; and others as deemed necessary. They meet monthly with two regular agenda items: First, what are the upcoming campus success stories that the institution must publicize widely; second, what are the storm clouds on the horizon that may become public crises. How to control the challenge before it becomes a crisis? The team’s input was critical at NCCU in identifying some of the issues the university needed to address. While the administrations of both institutions had connected, there was little or no interaction between NCCU and Duke students. Students yearned for the administration’s guidance as the crisis unfolded. A level of civility on campus was maintained, in part due to an emergency meeting where administrators and students  discussed concerns. It was clear that NCCU and Duke students needed to build closer relationships,  that students needed to gain a better understanding of what was happening in the case and the institution needed to develop programs to educate students about sexual assault and violence against women.
  • Ensure that the Issues Management Team designs, tests and fully implements a communications plan that anticipates every possible crisis and outlines how the institution will respond when the inevitable hits the fan. This was invaluable during the seven-month-long controversy at Indiana University. Key points in the plan should include an outline of the most important audiences you must address in times of crisis, a list of possible crises, and a sense of how to respond in one voice -- since reporters salivate when they find administrators who contradict each other in times of crisis.
  • Develop key talking points and a formal question and answer document and share with administration, faculty, staff, student leaders and alumni representatives who may be contacted by the media. The goal is to control the message and flow of information. Clearly, you can’t dictate what opinions faculty members are going to enunciate during a crisis. But it is essential that faculty is informed and know the institution’s  official positions and relevant policies. Conversely, it is far easier to control the message and flow of information from staff and administrators.
  • Provide media training for key administrators, faculty and students before, during and after the controversy. Use media trainers with experience in higher education, and ensure they teach the tactics, tips and techniques on how to respond effectively to reporters and practice in mock interviews, ideally on TV.
  • Review and update campus media guidelines to enhance management and movement of outside media on campus.
  • As the crisis unfolds and subsequently diminishes, note the “teachable moment” opportunity and how institutions can share the history and excellence of the institution, particularly after the crisis smoke has cleared. Once the intense media attention had waned, NCCU continued to receive some calls from the national media. However, the institution turned down interviews they sensed would sensationalize various allegations. NCCU also shared with the national media that it wanted the general public to know more about the university. The New York Times listened and published a front page, 29-paragraph news story.
  • Ensure that your long-term response includes talking about the legacy of academic excellence, notable alumni and academic excellence.
  • Well before a crisis, work to build town-gown relationships that are strong and enduring. Few campus crises will not elicit reactions from city and community business leaders and elected officials. Develop a regularly scheduled town-gown team to address common problems and common concerns. This team can be invaluable in times of crisis.
  • Value, nurture and support your university communications and media team. Few institutional leaders fully appreciate the hard work of the media relations team -- until they find themselves in a national media feeding frenzy.
  • Fully debrief when the controversy wanes. At Indiana University, the senior administrative team -- months after the Bob Knight firing -- changed athletics department policies to ensure no single coach in the future can attain power and control that exceeds that of the athletics director -- and in rare past cases, the president.

Bottom line: if your campus has not weathered a crisis, it will. Such controversies can have a dramatic impact on your reputation, image and financial stability. Plan for the problems well in advance. And when the inevitable hits the fan, have a team poised to respond effectively to key audiences, using strategic tactics and tips to ensure your key messages reach your most important audiences. That is how to preserve the institution’s image, reputation and financial stability.


James H. Ammons is chancellor of North Carolina Central University. In addition to dealing with the Duke lacrosse incident, he survived a mold crisis on his campus that resulted in a 512-bed dormitory being closed two weeks before classes were scheduled to start. Previously, he was provost of Florida A&M University.
Christopher Simpson is the CEO of SimpsonScarborough, a marketing, branding, media and crisis communications firm specializing in higher education. He is the former vice president of public affairs and government relations at Indiana University, and his first book on crisis communications will be published later this year.


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