College Leaders Should Take Charge of Crisis Response

Thom Weidlich 01.18.18


Two academic researchers recently published a paper calling for university leaders to play a bigger role in their institutions’ crisis efforts. In doing so, they have some important things to say about the challenges institutes of high learning face in confronting crises.

Researchers Joseph A. Brennan and Eric K. Stern of University at Albany, SUNY, in New York, note that colleges and universities, by their natures, are prone to crises; campuses are physically and ideologically open and allow for various types of people and ideas.

And, indeed, we have seen many crises centered on campuses, including mass shootings, protests over controversial speech, fraternity deaths, and sex harassment.

We have written about crises at the University of Southern California’s medical school (scandal over its dean), Dalhousie University’s dentistry school (misogynistic and sexually explicit Facebook posts by male students), Wheaton College (dropping the name of disgraced Dennis Hastert from a building), the University of Oklahoma (racist chants), and others.

In addition, Brennan and Stern write that academic culture “generally is at odds with crisis management.” Those cultural norms — spending a long time studying a problem, involving many stakeholders in decision-making, and not centralizing authority — make it difficult to respond quickly.

The researchers emphasize that they mean leadership. They contend college and university leaders have ceded too much of crisis response to operational personnel; leaders have a larger role to play in guiding the institution through the crisis in a way that protects its reputation.

“We argue that crisis leadership is an important function, one that is distinct from crisis operational management, and one that deserves greater attention,” Brennan and Stern write in the article, “Leading a Campus Through Crisis: The Role of College and University Presidents.” (The importance of leadership is the subject of CrisisResponsePro founder James F. Haggerty’s book Chief Crisis Officer: Structure and Leadership for Effective Communications Response.)

‘Reputational Threats’

The article, in the autumn/fall 2017 issue of the Journal of Education Advancement & Marketing, addresses what the writers see as one mistake in delegating to first responders responsibility for a crisis. “Many forms of crisis involve reputational threats as opposed to physical or material threats, and reputation management is often beyond the expertise of the first responder organizations who tend to set the tone with regard to university preparedness at many institutions,” they write.

A major area in which university presidents, chancellors, provosts, deans, trustees, and other top leaders should take charge is obviously communications. Brennan and Stern write that “crisis leadership requires not only making decisions, but also communicating them in ways that help to maintain a leader’s (and an organization’s) legitimacy and credibility.”

It also means emphasizing core values and making sense of tragedies and other crises. “By their words and deeds, leaders can convey images of competence, control, stability, sincerity, decisiveness, and vision — or their opposites,” the researchers write.

Navigating this successfully means not only maintaining the school’s reputation, but the leaders’ own — and maybe even their jobs. Just last week, the president of the University of Rochester resigned hours before he was cleared by an investigation into his handling of sex-harassment allegations against a professor.

Brennan and Stern cite a recent study that found an increase in “involuntary presidential departures” from institutions of higher learner, a major cause of which were, in their words, “crises that led to widespread campus dissatisfaction.”

That should be an incentive to take charge.

Photo Credit: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

This is an abridged version of an article that appeared today on the CrisisResponsePro paid subscription portal. (CrisisResponsePro subscribers can access the full version by clicking here. ID and password are required.) To take advantage of all of the content, data, and collaborative resources CrisisResponsePro has to offer, contact us at

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