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Professional Opinion

The survival checklist for higher ed presidents

Job security at colleges amid turmoil
University Business, May 2017
Joseph Brennan is vice president of communications and marketing, and clinical professor of business at the University at Albany. Mark Weaver owns Communications Counsel, an Ohio-based firm that advises universities on crisis communications. He teaches at The Ohio State University College of Law, the University of Akron, and the School of Government at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
Joseph Brennan is vice president of communications and marketing, and clinical professor of business at the University at Albany. Mark Weaver owns Communications Counsel, an Ohio-based firm that advises universities on crisis communications. He teaches at The Ohio State University College of Law, the University of Akron, and the School of Government at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

On some college campuses, the endangered species aren’t in the environmental science textbooks. They’re in the president’s office.

Based on a wide array of real and perceived performance issues, university presidents are facing growing challenges to their powerful roles. New findings by Southern Methodist University researchers reveal that “involuntary” presidential departures rose dramatically between 2007 and 2013.

That was before activists and threats of a boycott by the football team forced the University of Missouri’s president and chancellor to leave in 2015 over claims they were too slow in responding to racial tensions and incidents.

In 2016, Baylor University’s president and football coach succumbed to the institution’s perceived failure to act on alleged sex crimes by football players against female students.

While racial strife and athlete crimes may grab the most headlines, there’s growing evidence that life is getting more challenging for campus CEOs on several fronts. Any aggrieved stakeholder can cause a stir on social media at any time, causing controversies—once confined to campus—to spread virally around the world.

The threshold for what constitutes a fireable offense seems to be dropping even as student anger is on the rise. A study reported in The Chronicle of Higher Education last November found that just one in five forced presidential departures over a 25-year period involved financial issues.

The rest generally involved “broken relationships” with governing boards, campus dissatisfaction, athletic and political controversies, sexual misconduct, and integrity issues such as plagiarism.

Managing issues such as these and skillfully navigating through the attendant crises are must-have skills for today’s college president.

Based on our decades of experience counseling campus CEOs on both the public relations and legal aspects of crises of all kinds, we’ve identified the key behaviors successful presidents use to lead their institutions through the tough times.

Preparation is key

Smart presidents recognize that no campus is immune to crisis. They insist that their senior teams develop a crisis mindset (see sidebar) and acquire the necessary skills for preventing, responding to and recovering from severe disruptions. Presidents caught unprepared to talk to the media about bad news pay a high price in reputation damage.

Build your team

Presidents need to surround themselves with trustworthy advisors who can bring multiple perspectives on issues. The most common mistake we’ve seen is when the top leader is overly influenced by a single counselor who looks at things from just one standpoint.

All too often, this person is an attorney who’s most concerned about managing legal risk and fails to see the reputational dangers.

Speed kills

Higher education moves slowly and in predictable ways. Crises do not. Wise leaders demand their teams move quickly when problems flare up. One of the best ways to do this is to remove layers of approval and pre-authorize people to act and communicate immediately.

Another best practice is to have a password-protected, cloud-based crisis center that can be accessed even when university computers are damaged or down.

Your crisis plan and contact information for staff, media and stakeholders should be stored in the cloud and available via your smartphones. Anyone with authority to post to social media must have access to those accounts during off hours. And they must be able to do it with a smart phone.

Get the big picture

Your job is to interpret the situation for your stakeholders. When a crisis strikes, everyone wants to know what’s happening, why it’s happening and what’s being done about it. When leaders give answers to these questions, stakeholders develop more confidence. Good presidents are out front with honest answers that display accountability and transparency.

Relationships matter

Serious issues of all kinds erode trust in the leader and put pressure on relationships. Prudent leaders spend a great deal of time nurturing relationships in advance with faculty, students, alumni, activists, the news media and others who will influence the situation.

And when crisis strikes, they pay special attention to the victims, providing empathy and assuring that their human needs are being met.

It’s not over until it’s over

A critical mistake many leaders make is to assume too quickly that the crisis is over. Veteran public relations professionals know that the toughest questions often come on the second day, when the media and activists change the conversation from “what happened” to “who is to blame.”

Missteps at this stage often bring additional regulatory scrutiny for perceived process defects. Leaders need to stay engaged and to keep their teams focused on the situation for weeks or even months.

Close the chapter

Good leaders also know how to move their campuses from response to recovery. They tap into the power of rituals, like memorial services, to help followers transition from one phase to the next. Academia often focuses on the brain, but leaders move hearts.

Learn from the last time

Perhaps the most important task of the leader is to make sure that the organization learns from a serious incident. Too often we see debriefs that focus on only what actions were taken in response to the event.

Presidents should insist on a full examination that includes what came before, and they should see to it that changes are made based on the lessons learned.

Not every endangered species disappears. Some go on to thrive and endure. College presidents can learn from that example.


Joseph Brennan is vice president of communications and marketing, and clinical professor of business at the University at Albany. Mark Weaver owns Communications Counsel, an Ohio-based firm that advises universities on crisis communications. He teaches at The Ohio State University College of Law, the University of Akron, and the School of Government at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

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