When a Crisis Goes Viral: A Test of Leadership for Board Chairs and Presidents

By AGB November 8, 2018 May 12th, 2021 Blog Post

In recent years governing boards and campus leadership have become more strategic about enterprise risk management. Despite these efforts, conflicts related to campus climate, free speech, intercollegiate athletics, and sexual assault can go viral in a nanosecond. Board members, the campus community, and the public at large are more likely than in the past to learn about crises on campus via social media, or the national press, and misinformation can often abound.

At no time is the president-board chair relationship more important, and potentially more tested, than when a crisis has gone viral. How might the president and board chair work together to prepare the campus and the board for such occurrences?

  1. Presidents and board chairs should routinely consider the scenarios that “could never happen on our campus” and discuss expectations for communication that is timely and accurate.
  2. Board chairs should ensure that the president and the administrative team are free to act in their best judgment as any crisis unfolds. This may involve redirecting the energy of board members who may be particularly anxious.
  3. The chair can serve as a thoughtful sounding board, assisting the president to leverage perspective and expertise on the board that might be helpful in resolving the issues at hand.
  4. Presidents and board chairs should devote sustained, intentional efforts to build relationships of mutual respect and trust—relationships that can withstand difficult conversations, diverging perspectives, and even (perhaps especially) a “black swan” event.

Even the most accomplished campus leader may find addressing campus crises demanding and draining. During such challenges, the role of the board chair as “chief encourager” for campus leadership cannot be underestimated.

Eileen Wilson-Oyelaran is President Emerita of Kalamazoo College and Vice Chair of the Pomona College Board of Trustees. She serves on the faculty of AGB’s Institute for Board Chairs and Presidents of Independent Colleges and Universities, which will be held in Phoenix, AZ from January 10-12 and in Ponte Vedra Beach, FL from January 14-16, 2019. A third Institute will be held in Aspen, CO from June 17-19, 2019.