While attending a symposium organized by the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, I heard an interesting phrase from Enku Gelaye, vice president of student affairs and campus life at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She and Mamta Accapadi, vice president of student affairs at Rollins College, described a phenomenon that often presents itself in student affairs circles as the “crisis-industrial complex.”
Crisis is big business. There are organizations, services and firms that can help you prevent, mitigate or manage your campus crisis. You might have good reason to seek such services -- real crises occasionally do present themselves when you and your staff are unprepared and need professional guidance. But, that said, a careful consideration of when and whether to engage in the crisis-industrial complex is worthy of your time.
In fact, when senior student affairs professionals get together, we often feed the crisis-industrial complex. We see that happen when a staff member at one institution talks to a colleague at another one about the number of campus crises they’ve weathered in a given year and how heroically (or unheroically) they’ve responded. There probably was a time when having to deal with a multitude of crises felt (unnecessarily) shameful, but now people seem to wear the number of crises they have had to confront as a student affairs professional as a badge of honor. The higher the number, the tougher we think we seem to be. We tout our crisis experience, perhaps as proof that we’re working harder than anyone else, that we are somehow more valuable to our institutions than anyone else or that our institutions are more beleaguered than others and we deserve sympathy or empathy. Perhaps we want people to think we have been brave.
But the truth is that outdoing our peers with our crisis tales is a sad commentary on the current state of student affairs. First, when we brag about how often our teams have had to mobilize to manage a crisis, it means that those teams have been taxed and stressed, perhaps for the entire academic year, with only a few moments of respite. If your team has truly been in crisis mode all year, either from real or imagined crises, it means it is probably chronically stressed and at high risk for burnout or staff turnover. That isn’t something we ought to be crowing about. The crisis-industrial complex is not something we should mindlessly and casually perpetuate. Not everything is a crisis.
Imagine the following scenarios:
- A controversial speaker is arriving on the campus, and you meet with your senior managers to determine how to approach the upcoming campus talk, phrasing your need to meet as “urgent.”
- Students of color demand to speak with your campus president about a list of requirements that include providing more resources for campus cultural centers. Your colleagues deem this a crisis, and their discomfort is palpable.
- A death by suicide occurs on the campus, creating a ripple effect among all those who knew the person. Someone wants to convene a meeting to determine how to manage this crisis.
Our hearts may be racing -- particularly if these events happen in the same week, which wouldn’t be unheard-of. And many of us might start sending out frantic missives and emails, asking folks to respond to the numerous problems, real and imagined, that must be urgently solved.
I have to admit that, in my real life, calling on my alter ego as Olivia Pope from Scandal, I pride myself on my ability to “handle it.” I thrive on crisis management. I’m good at it, and I have a job where this skill set helps get me through campus events from the serious and life-threatening to the truly bizarre. I wonder, however, if we can’t find a better way to respond to such campus matters and use certain tools that would allow us and our colleagues to have a different relationship to crises -- one that is kinder on ourselves and our endocrine systems.
For example, in these divided political times, we can expect to host controversial speakers on our campuses. Why not then, in advance, meet regularly to outline an action plan for such speakers, hold trainings for staff members, mobilize a process to engage students and formalize those processes so that newcomers can quickly learn them? That way, news of a controversial speaker could become a talk about how we are putting our already well-developed plans into place -- not how we are urgently responding to the upcoming crisis.
Likewise, we can also expect that with changing demographics on our campuses, we will find ourselves in the position of having to reimagine how we deliver our services. Sometimes we cannot give students what they want, and we must create space for transparent conversations about the philosophical, legal or financial underpinnings of our limitations. We owe this kind of education to our students. Other times, however, we can give them exactly what they want, humbly realizing where we have faltered before and pledging to do better.
Also, while many decisions are time sensitive, others are not. As Steven Sample, former president of the University of Southern California, wrote in The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership, “Never make a decision yourself that can reasonably be delegated to a lieutenant; and never make a decision today that can reasonably be put off to tomorrow.” (Emphasis added.)
Rash, impulsive decisions because we feel we are under an arbitrary timeline often yield sloppy outcomes. Thoughtful decisions, born out of intentional and sometimes protracted dialogue, help to model a process that can be useful for our students. When we show students that we can be thoughtful, that we can deliberate and that we can methodically analyze complicated sets of data prior to making an important decision that is not time-bound, we are providing them with the education they deserve. In contrast, by assuming that anything that could yield unflattering press coverage must, by definition, be avoided at all costs, those of us who work in student affairs -- and, in fact, in many areas of senior administration -- may be unwittingly setting ourselves up for hastily made decisions that may have larger, far more negative consequences for the institution. In short, it’s not necessarily a crisis if what you really just need to do is sit down and talk with your students.
Let’s consider the suicide incident. That might understandably yield a response of “This is the real crisis, right? This is the time for the urgent phone calls and quick thinking, right? This is when I can use all of my financial and social resources to manage a crisis, right?” Well, yes and no. People die by suicide around the world, and it is a phenomenon that writers, philosophers, ethicists, psychologists and sociologists have studied for years. It is devastating to surviving friends and family members. We can try to stop suicides: cutting-edge treatments can reduce suicidal ideation, and campus interventions -- crisis hotlines, proactive outreach programming for vulnerable populations and the like -- can help despondent students reach out for help.
Along with this, however, we should acknowledge the notion that individuals who are determined to end their lives sometimes do so. In fact, suicides are sometimes completed in medical facilities, just beyond the watchful eye of staff members, in a place where the patient knows they can be alone. Procedures should be tightened to reduce the risk of this ever happening again, but right now, research indicates that this is a phenomenon that occurs. Sometimes, suicides are completed in the homes of loved ones who have provided support. And sometimes they are completed on college campuses, despite prevention presentations, caring professors or strategically posted hotline numbers. We may be under some obligations to prevent suicides that are foreseeable, but some are not. When we pretend that this can’t happen at our institutions, we are simultaneously not taking the threat seriously and failing to prepare our staff -- leaving them vulnerable, helpless and in crisis mode when it occurs.
To be clear, I am not suggesting that we surrender to the inevitable and therefore do nothing. On the contrary: we must create structures of caring and support, both emotional and physical. We must train resident assistants and professors to detect early warning signs. We must give people more financial resources for primary prevention efforts, not just treatment efforts.
But we must also prepare our staff members for the possibility that, despite such important efforts, deaths from car accidents, overdoses, violence and suicide might, unfortunately, occur at some point, and we still have to create campus protocols that acknowledge those deaths. We can manage and mitigate threats, but we cannot pretend that our institutions are bubbles where our educational pursuits will somehow fully inoculate us from the world.
Your institution should have a well-thought-out plan in place for such events. When you don’t have a plan for a campus death, every death is a crisis. When you do have a plan, let your well-written protocols carry you through the tragedy, let your humanity sustain you, let your connection to your student body and the affected community guide you. But do not let an imagined need for frantic crisis response drive you to thoughtless and irresponsible decision making.
More often than not, if students or staff members learn of a suicide or another very difficult situation on the campus, they can best deal with it in a predictable yet flexible manner that demands a softened heart, not a frantic, hastily delivered note, call or directive. Consider instructing your staff to respond swiftly but not from a place of crisis-infused panic that they think is enacted at your direction. Decision making under periods of intense stress is often less creative and less compassionate, not more.
Finally, we should reserve our crisis talk and responses for incidents that are truly crises. Gelaye says that when we normalize crises, we are sacrificing freedom. When we pretend that this is the way it has to be, we don’t allow our employees to use their own judgment to determine whether it is, in fact, a crisis. We are substituting their judgment for ours. If the response is always, “The boss thinks this, too, is a crisis and we should act accordingly,” our staffs will never be able to discern for themselves whether or not they should be in crisis mode.
On our campuses, we confront many opportunities to flex our crisis-management muscles: violent situations, scandals, racial incidents, political turmoil. We need to respond rapidly and efficiently to those stressful life-altering or catastrophic events that demand quick and temporary, high-intensity outbursts of activity. But then we must make sure those moments are followed by a rest and recovery period. Our staffs must understand that we need them to recharge so they can approach tomorrow’s ever-rocky landscape with confidence, preparation and our support.