The recent race-related incident at the University of Missouri resulting in the resignations of the University of Missouri system president and chancellor have spurred numerous protests on college campuses across the country. While some allege that these student-led movements are unnecessary and divisive; the timeline of events that precipitated Jonathon Butler’s hunger strike at Missouri paints a vastly different picture than what is often reported. Even more, campus protests have brought renewed attention to ongoing issues related to the low number of Black faculty at predominately White Campuses.
Amid the racial tensions that continue to plague many universities, another more problematic issue is the missteps made by university presidents in dealing with race-related crises. Many university presidents do not take race-related matters seriously. As a result of slow responses or instances where “no comment” was provided, university administrators are often removed from their positions or forced to resign. Interestingly, crisis management experts indicate that when issues of race are involved, resignations of high-ranking administrators could be avoided if they react immediately and take a proactive approach in addressing the concerns of those within the campus community who have been oppressed by racist behaviors.
Though crisis events related to racial tensions are serious matters that deserve our full attention; incidents involving campus hazing and sexual assault are equally troubling and have brought the presidential leadership within the HBCU community under scrutiny. In these incidents, as was the case at the University of Missouri, university presidents were slow to react and failed to immediately address the concerns of the faculty, staff, students and the broader community. Instead of facts, what results from a lack of action on the part of the presidents are rumors, innuendo and the perception of a “cover up.” It is critical that when faced with a crisis, presidents address issues directly and with full transparency. Unfortunately, a lack of effective presidential leadership in times of crises simply erodes trust among the university community and alumni, which often results in the image of the institution being tarnished.
Campus crises can best be addressed with presidential leadership that is proactive and responsive. In order to achieve these aims, university presidents should consider engaging these practices:
1. Establish communication plans in preparation for crises and make determinations about who might serve as spokespeople.
2. Immediately make clear to the campus community that they know about the crisis and are being proactive in dealing with the event.
3. Develop skills in effective crisis management to be in a better position to recover from negative events that could threaten the image and future viability of their institutions.
4. Address crises events directly and with full transparency; distorting facts, misleading and laying blame on other individuals never works.
5. Ensure that senior leadership teams and other institutional leaders are well versed in how to handle incidents that result from crises.
Presidents that show an authentic understanding and willingness to address the needs of faculty, staff and students are more likely to gain the support needed to lead the institution through a crisis. Without question, experiencing crises are part and parcel of being a university president, however, those who are able to practice effective leadership in times of campus upheaval will create the trust necessary between administrators and the campus community to ensure stronger and more resilient institutions.