“The disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic has prompted cobbled-together responses ranging from the absurd to the ingenious at colleges and universities struggling to continue teaching even as their students have receded into diminutive images, in dire need of haircuts, on videoconference checkerboards.”So sayeth The New York Times
If you’re a senior college administrator you’re in a tough spot right now. The call for answers is deafening — parents, students, faculty, alumni, boards, and the media are demanding information. Everyone wants to know the unknowable — what will colleges and universities actually be like in the fall?
As leadership teams struggle to put into words the no-win scenarios available to them, Rome burns.
Here’s a radical thought: what would happen if you were not afraid of transparency?
Not long ago, I worked at a prestigious liberal arts college, known for its progressive politics and campus activism. Suddenly, we found ourselves in the midst of a five day occupation of the president’s office. Students were demanding that college officials accept the demands of maintenance workers for fair wages.
About thirty students moved in with sleeping bags; dozens more set-up tents outside the windows. And, it coincided with Admitted Students Day where the escalating protest was in full view of hundreds of parents and prospective students touring the campus.
Bound by confidentiality, we could not discuss our position at the bargaining table. But what we could do was to solicit difficult questions — which is exactly what the Dean of Students did. He brought his own sleeping bag and spent those five days on the floor with students. In doing so, he slowly gained student trust by seeing them not as a problem to get rid of, but as a genuine and important part of the solution.
Here is some of what we wrote in a letter to the student body:
“In keeping with our aspirations to be open and inclusive, we will and must make every attempt to shelter honest, often difficult dialogue, in and out of the classroom, if we are really to acknowledge one another.”
That president’s letter, and the actions of the Dean, were credible. There was no attempt at sugar-coating. It was the first step towards trust, towards giving the president the benefit of the doubt.
During these last six months, college presidents (and the executive teams that support them) have become the Mario Cuomos of their own small city-states, governing amidst an ongoing and deafening call for answers, guidance, and scarce resources.
In that role, your primary job is to inspire confidence and cooperation. When it comes to crisis communications, there are four things you need to keep in mind:
- Display calm confidence. Leaders lead.
- Address issues and challenges as they arise. Be as transparent as possible.
- Be absolutely crystal clear. Ambiguity is not your friend.
- Use social media to carry on an ongoing conversation.
What we want to see in a leader is that they’re transparent, credible and accountable.
And while none of us can foresee or script the future, it is important to be the person who gives us the information we need; someone with a thoughtful, no-holds-barred, unvarnished approach — someone able to engender trust quickly, at a time when we need it more than ever.
Someone who tells the truth.