Crisis Leadership Understanding, Navigating, and Leading in the Complexity of Crisis

Leaders of colleges and universities must be prepared to navigate a wide array of complex situations. At various points in time, these situations rise to the level of crisis, defined here as events or situations of significant magnitude that threaten reputations, impact the lives of those involved in the institution, disrupt the ways in which the organization functions, have a cascading influence on leadership responsibilities and obligations across units or divisions, and require an immediate response from leaders. 

Rather than being isolated incidents requiring the sole attention of presidents, chancellors, or communication professionals, the proliferation of crises across campuses means that crisis leadership has now become fundamental to the work of university personnel across levels, disciplines, and institutions, including those who are engaged in student affairs, leadership, and student union management. 

When the very fabric of an institution might seem torn or damaged, the spirit of community and solidarity cultivated by college unions—along with the guiding values of inclusivity, respect, and student well-being associated with these organizations—becomes especially important. College and university unions serve as important physical sites during times of institutional crisis as they are often the venue for student protests, public demonstrations, or prayer services following campus tragedies. More broadly, the activities organized by student union professionals and student affairs professionals play an important role in helping an institution to navigate, respond to, and eventually recover from the myriad crises that might be encountered in higher education.  

Research Overview and Higher Education Crisis Taxonomy 

As summarized in the recently published Crisis Leadership in Higher Education: theory and Practice, a comprehensive research study to explore the following research questions was undertaken: 

  • What events/situations are characterized as crises in higher education? 
  • How do these events/situations become defined and labeled as crises? 
  • What are the prominent characteristics of the discourse around crisis and crisis leadership in higher education? 
  • What skills, values, and competencies are important for the work of crisis leaders in higher education? 

Drawing from nearly 40 interviews with senior higher education leaders and a content analysis of over 1,000 articles from a variety of news outlets, the types of crises that emerged as most relevant for colleges and universities were organized across the following taxonomy: 

  • Academic
    Crisis that disrupts or violates the core academic mission of an institution (e.g., widespread plagiarism or academic fraud) 
  • Athletics
    Crisis involving student athletes or the athletic enterprise of an institution (e.g., athletic hazing incident) 
  • Clinical
    Crisis involving patients, clinical research, or the health/medical institution of an organization (e.g., physician malpractice) 
  • Facilities/Technological
    Crisis that disrupts the physical or virtual infrastructure of an institution (e.g., chemical spill or cyberattack) 
  • Financial
    Crisis that directly involves the business operations of an institution (e.g., significant decrease in state appropriations) 
  • Human Resources
    Crisis that directly involves the employees and/or employment practices of an institution (e.g., employee crime) 
  • Leadership
    Crisis dealing with institutional governance and oversight (e.g., publicized conflict between state legislature and university leadership) 
  • Natural Disaster
    Crisis resulting from the natural processes of the Earth (e.g., hurricane or flood) 
  • Public Safety
    Crisis that threatens the well-being of the members of the institution (e.g., active shooter, coronavirus) 
  • Racial/Identity Conflict
    Crisis triggered by racial or other social identity tensions within the institution (e.g., campus unrest resulting from one or more racist incidents) 
  • Student Affairs
    Crisis involving students or the student experience at an institution (e.g., student mental health issue) 

Note that the crisis types outlined here are not meant to be mutually exclusive categories. For example, a natural disaster can certainly threaten the well-being of the campus community (public safety crisis) and cause significant damage to the physical infrastructure of an institution (facilities/technological crisis). Or consider the case of a major cyberattack (facilities/technological crisis) that eventually disrupts employee payroll processes (human resources) and student access to learning management systems (academic crisis), in addition to the financial cost required to correct and prevent the issue from happening again (financial crisis). Crises have a cascading influence on leadership responsibilities and obligations across units and divisions, and the interdependence of different units, departments, or divisions makes crisis leadership a collective responsibility. It is no longer limited to those with the most senior titles or the most public-facing roles. 

In preparation for your current unit, department, or institution, consider the specific crises that might one day impact your scope of work. In what ways are you and your colleagues most prepared or least prepared to address a specific crisis? Crisis preparation has very quickly become an imperative for any aspiring or current leader in higher education. 

Crisis as Socially Constructed 

In reviewing some of the recent public crises to impact colleges and universities, there are several that nearly all institutional stakeholders may classify as a crisis and that are less likely to elicit debate and disagreement in their perceived severity. For example, the widespread physical destruction at the University of Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria or the University of North Carolina–Wilmington in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence, along with the sexual abuse scandals at Pennsylvania State University and Michigan State University, clearly disrupt and violate the core mission of the university and place a direct spotlight on the behaviors of formal leaders. In most other types of situations, however, the acknowledgement, recognition, and treatment of events as crises is less clear. In fact, as some senior student affairs leaders indicated during interviews, “If no one’s life is at risk, it’s not truly a crisis.” Given the subjectivity of the label, how do we come to know what a crisis is, who gets to label the situation as a crisis, and how can leaders best navigate crises if they are seen to lie in the eye of the beholder? 

Consider for a moment the reasons why different audiences may choose to describe an event or situation a crisis. For those directly or indirectly affected by an incident, framing the event as a crisis helps to focus attention on a problem of concern and heighten the probability of a swifter response. For the media, framing an event as a crisis signals its significance and news value. Leaders from an institution may also find it strategically useful to identify an incident or set of circumstances as a crisis because of its ability to permit expedited decision making and facilitate quick and authoritative action. 

On the other hand, the word “crisis” carries significant associations that might be problematic for how such an event is perceived by others and the impact this might have on the short- and long-term reputation of an institution. For these reasons, it becomes important to pay careful attention to the language used to frame an incident for internal and external groups, and to carefully monitor the ways in which others are describing problematic or troubling events at an institution.  

Implications for Applied Practice 

In examining the theory and practice of crisis leadership, there are a number of implications for leaders in higher education, three of which are especially relevant for student union professionals. 

Perception Matters 

First, perception matters. The number of stakeholders who interact with the college and university union is often innumerable, as is the number of internal and external groups with an interest in the programs and activities organized by student affairs professionals. Crises, as socially constructed, are often called into existence through communication between leaders and followers or between the media and internal and external stakeholders. Given some of the subjectivity associated with the label “crisis,” it becomes important for leaders in higher education to take the perceptions of others seriously. As these research findings seem to suggest, if others perceive an event or incident as a crisis or a crisis-in-the-making, it would be wise to treat the event with careful, serious, and focused attention. 

Adopt and Maintain an Institutional Scope 

Next, we live and work in increasingly interdependent environments. In many ways, the student union is situated at the physical, social, and spiritual nexus of the college or university campus. The union is a place where people gather, and a place where relationships and partnerships are initiated, formed, and sustained. Given the cascading impact of crises, union and student affairs professionals must adopt and maintain an institutional scope. Crises affecting the varsity athletics team, the academic health center, or an individual fraternity or sorority can “spill over” to impact many other departments across the institution. As one senior leader noted in this study, “Your purview is not just your portfolio. So, like when we had this racist, misogynist email, that wasn’t just a student affairs problem, that was a campus-wide problem.” 

Prepare for the Inevitability of Crises 

Finally, regardless of the current role a professional is in, or the make-up of the current team, take the time to prepare and develop a plan for the inevitability of crises that might impact your unit, department, or institution. Consider the ways in which the core values of the unit, department, or institution can help address a potential crisis, and learn from how others, both within and outside of higher education, approach crisis leadership. The ultimate goal is to ensure that the responsibilities for managing a crisis are well-defined and understood far in advance of a crisis event. 

Crises are watershed moments for colleges and universities that have the potential to threaten personal and collective core values. At the same time, these moments help to create the conditions through which these personal and collective core values are made public and prominent. The hope is that when faced with crisis situations, these values orient leaders and their colleagues in a proper and principled direction.  

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