Focus on the Presidency: Core Values Should Guide a University’s Crisis Response

By Fred P. Pestello    //    Volume 23,  Number 1   //    January/February 2015

Like Polaris guiding ancient mariners to safe shores, a college’s or university’s deep-seated values are the beacons that its executives and board members should rely upon to lead them through a crisis.

Intellectually, we all know this. But in the urgency and pressures of an active crisis, we sometimes close our eyes to these beacons. Instead, we automatically go into response mode, moving swiftly to take authoritative actions to neutralize or resolve the all-consuming crisis. And, too often, we find ourselves far down a path that runs contrary to our core values, or at least minimizes their legitimacy in the eyes of students, faculty, staff, and stakeholders. The result: Trust and leadership are undermined and not easily repaired.

I know my crisis management team and I, a new president just a few months in the job, were unwittingly considering such a course on October 13, when, in the early hours, a crisis befell Saint Louis University (SLU).

More than 1,000 demonstrators, many our students, marched through the campus in support of racial equity and social justice. They were outraged by another police shooting of a young African-American man—the son of a longtime SLU employee—who was killed less than a mile away. That only worsened racial tensions, already high since the fateful August day when Officer Darren Wilson and Michael Brown crossed paths in Ferguson, Missouri.

By morning, two dozen students and their collaborators began building an encampment at the center of campus. They urged passers-by to come back and learn more about racial disparities. That night, more than 500 students returned for the first of several teach-ins.

We were worried. We presumed the demonstrators could disrupt our campus for weeks to come. The phones lit up, and the emails poured in. Many were quick to voice their displeasure and demand an immediate, forceful removal of the camp and the demonstrators. In our internal discussions, concerns surfaced about withdrawals, campus visits, fundraising, and future enrollments.

That leap to the worst case—impulsive on our part and heedless of our values as a Jesuit institution— initially propelled us forward. But we quickly realized this was not right. Not to me, my vice presidents, or our trustees. And not to most in the SLU community.

We put our considered actions on hold and took time to see the demonstrations through the lens of the core Jesuit values that have guided our university for nearly 200 years. We reminded ourselves that Jesuit principles compel us to respect each person and heed a call for justice, as uncomfortable as that might be. That assessment was both illuminating and comforting. And it completely reframed our strategy and messages going forward.

We let the encampment and nightly teach-ins play out. On the fourth day of the occupation, we initiated conversations with two students who were demonstration leaders and their advisers.

At the outset, we simply talked and listened to one another. We worked to find areas of understanding and agreement—and not dwell on our differences. Throughout those discussions, we in positions of leadership strove to speak using the poetry of compassion, respect, and dignity, rather than the prose of fear, power, and threats.

We did not permit the way demonstrators sometimes communicated (with curse words and anger) or acted (at one point disrespecting the flag) to stop us from hearing their personal pain. They shared life experiences we did not have but needed to understand. And with that simple human exchange, we found a path to an agreement to quickly end the occupation voluntarily, peaceably, and permanently.

After a six-day stay, the demonstrators, seeking racial equity and empowerment, peacefully packed up their tents and tables and returned to their dorm rooms and homes. Earlier in the week, that outcome was deemed by most to be an impossibility. Our trustees breathed a sigh of relief. They had put their confidence in a new president. As events rapidly unfolded and entirely consumed us, the board had to trust—and not try to manage—the path that my advisers and I had chosen. By wedding our actions and messages to our mission and values, we earned their trust.

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