University Business May 2017 - 49

PROFESSIONAL OPINION

Survival checklist
for university presidents
Job security amid turmoil
By Joseph Brennan and Mark Weaver

O

n 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 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

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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.

The threshold for what
constitutes a fireable
offense seems to be
dropping even as student
anger is on the rise.
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
May 2017 | 49


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