Object Lesson: The Crucial Role of Trustees in Facing Crisis

By Joseph A. Brennan    //    Volume 25,  Number 4   //    July/August 2017

On a foggy December morning in Iowa City, students and professors arriving at the University of Iowa’s campus were greeted by a shocking sight: a 7-foot-tall effigy of a Ku Klux Klansman, dressed in pointed hat and flowing robe. The figure was covered with clippings of newspaper stories depicting lynchings and race riots.

The eerie, mist-shrouded statue had been erected on the very spot where the night before some 200 African-American students and their supporters had held a noisy but peaceful Black Lives Matter demonstration, protesting the killing of unarmed black citizens by police in Detroit and on Staten Island.

News spread quickly on social media, and as the morning wore on, students began to gather around the effigy. Some were curious, many were angry, and several later told university officials that they were terrified by the image, believing it was meant as a threat.

Student affairs personnel went to the site and quickly determined that no permit had been issued for the display—something that university rules required for anybody wishing to use this portion of the campus, a heavily trafficked central quad that backed up to Iowa’s most iconic building, the Old State Capitol. The university had a longstanding policy that allowed it to impose reasonable “time, place, and manner” restrictions on its use, so that free speech activities wouldn’t unreasonably interfere with the academic work taking place in neighboring classroom and office buildings.

Lurking in the mist near the shadows stood the sculpture’s maker, a Turkish-born artist who was spending the year in Iowa City as a fellow in a university-sponsored arts program. A self-described anarchist, he had a history of mounting provocative public art displays. He later said that he had intended the KKK effigy to provoke a public discussion of racism in America, but without signage or flyers posted near the installation, his intentions were unknown. He also later told officials that he had hidden a camera in the effigy to record the reactions of passers-by, but claimed he had forgotten to turn it on.

When exchanges between upset students and the artist became heated, university police officers stepped in and ordered the artist to remove the piece. Television news cameras filmed the scene as a uniformed officer helped the artist carry the effigy to his car, followed by a small group of students.

Shortly thereafter, a group of about 40 mostly African-American students marched on the president’s office. Learning that she was out of town, the demonstrators then occupied a nearby administrative office. They ultimately agreed to move to a room in the student union for a dialogue with the vice president of student life and the chief diversity officer. That session went on for hours. Some students were so distraught that they broke into tears, while others expressed anger that the university would allow what they felt to be a racist and threatening display.

The story quickly became a national headline, and footage of the police officer carrying the statue defined the incident on social media. The University of Iowa immediately found itself in the crosshairs of both the left and the right, as two values that are deeply cherished on American campuses came into sharp conflict: the desire to support freedom of expression and the desire to provide a safe, welcoming environment for students. Indeed, conflicts of values often underlie and help to intensify crisis situations, making it critical for top leaders to provide normative, values-based leadership.

We were serving as president (Mason) and vice president of strategic communications (Brennan). We were both out of town, so we conferred by phone with other senior leaders throughout the morning and decided to make a statement supporting our students and condemning the visiting artist’s actions. We anticipated that this position would expose us to criticism in some quarters, but given the national climate about race relations at that time, and the pressures felt by African Americans on our largely white Midwestern campus, we felt the right thing to do was to stand with our minority students, faculty, and staff.

The statement, in its entirety, read:

The University of Iowa is a diverse community with no tolerance for racism, and the artwork that was briefly displayed on the Pentacrest this morning was deeply offensive to members of our community. Because it was placed without permission, university officials directed the visiting artist who created it to remove it, which he did. The University of Iowa considers all forms of racism abhorrent and is deeply committed to the principles of inclusion and acceptance. There is no room for divisive, insensitive, and intolerant displays on this campus. The display was not approved by nor sanctioned by the university. The UI respects freedom of speech, but the university is also responsible for ensuring that public discourse is respectful and sensitive.

President Mason followed up two days later with a more detailed statement apologizing for the incident and pledging additional actions to improve the campus climate. We also urged the School of Art and Art History to hold an open forum to give the campus an opportunity to discuss the important questions surrounding this incident, including the role of public art in provoking discussions, whether the piece failed in its intentions, and whether the institution was wrong to invoke its policies to order its removal.

In the days to come, the university and President Mason faced criticism in social media and on opinion pages. To some, the institution was to blame for allowing its minority students to be traumatized; to others, it was wrong for not standing up for the artist’s First Amendment rights. In an especially ironic moment, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a right-leaning organization with a habit of criticizing universities for anything it sees as limitations on freedom of speech, publicly condemned Mason for calling the unauthorized installation of the statue “insensitive and divisive.” We responded to FIRE that the right of free expression also extends to university presidents.

We offer this example as an illustration of just how fraught such situations are. Over the past few years, we’ve entered a new era of campus unrest, and our institution’s leaders are under enormous pressures from both on- and off-campus sources.

Our institutions aren’t separate from the rest of society, of course. The issues playing out across America today are also playing out on our campuses. Those of us of a certain age can remember the widespread and at times violent unrest of the ’60s and ’70s and see today’s events as the re-emergence of behavior that has long been part of American higher education. Yet we also recognize that to younger leaders, including many trustees, it may feel like we are entering uncharted waters because their generation attended college at a time when demonstrations were far less common. As educators, we know that our response to activism is often tempered by an understanding that today’s students do care deeply about issues of justice, and many genuinely want to make the world a better place. Many times, unrest on campus reflects their frustrations about what’s happening in the bigger world and isn’t necessarily a sign that the administration is failing. Trustees, who have less contact with students, may not view things in the same light.

Board members play a crucially important role when crises strike. Trustees can and should focus on supporting their president. That support, we argue, begins with understanding the role of the president in leading a campus through and back from a critical incident. Boards must also be prepared to make the difficult determination to remove a president or chancellor whose misbehavior or inability to provide effective crisis leadership threatens to profoundly affect the institution’s ability to perform its mission. No board wants to see things progress to such a point, however. That’s why it is so crucial for the trustees to understand the president’s role in crisis leadership and support him or her in performing it.

THE ROLE OF PRESIDENTS IN CRISIS

In their very useful book, The Politics of Crisis Management: Public Leadership under Pressure, Arjen Boin, Paul ‘t Hart, Eric K. Stern, and Bengt Sundelius have identified six crucial tasks that a leader must undertake when his or her organization is experiencing a crisis (which we define as any occurrence, whether caused by humans or by nature, that substantially disrupts normal operations, poses significant risks or causes severe harm, and threatens to interfere with an organization’s ability to perform the core functions necessary to deliver its mission). These crucial leadership tasks are:

Sensemaking: Crises by definition are fraught with uncertainty. Presidents must quickly make sense of what’s happening and ensure that the response team shares a common operating picture. They must help give all stakeholders clear information on what has happened, what impact it has had, and what is being done about it.

Meaning-making: Just as important, presidents must articulate the bigger picture and give voice to the university’s values, reminding all stakeholders of what is most important so they can interpret the situation. Crises, like the one we described, often present challenges to prized values, which need to be reaffirmed. The president can—and should— explicitly refer to institutional norms and values when framing the narrative about what happened, how it affected people, and what is being done to address it now and prevent something like it from recurring.

Deciding: Crises tend to present themselves as a series of “what do we do now” problems. Leaders must quickly make critical determinations without the benefit of full information, often under very trying circumstances. Presidents must be willing to suspend the university’s normal consultative and consensus-driven approach to decisions in favor of one that allows the rapid, real-time decisions crises demand.

Terminating: Top leaders need to be able to guide the institution back to normal operating status. This work is especially tricky. Declaring an end to the crisis prematurely often creates a backlash from students, faculty, parents, and alumni who may not be emotionally ready to move on. Yet human beings need to be able to move forward after disasters, and allowing the institution to remain in crisis mode for too long hinders the operational and psychological recovery essential for optimal functioning. Important tasks in the terminating phase can include rituals of mourning, like the memorial service Virginia Tech held after the mass shooting in 2007.

In addition to these four important functions, leaders must also ensure that a full accounting and effective learning take place after the crisis. The university must identify and act on lessons learned from what happened so that it is better prepared for the next time a crisis strikes. As we have learned from our decades in higher education leadership, it’s not a matter of “if” a crisis will strike an institution, it’s a matter of “when.”

We cannot stress enough how crucial it is for the president and his or her senior team to attend to these six key tasks of normative crisis leadership. We caution them to empower subordinates to handle the managerial and tactical aspects of the incident to have the requisite time and energy necessary to provide normative leadership. In a forthcoming article in the Journal of Education Advancement and Marketing, Brennan and Stern explain each of the six tasks in depth and illustrate them with examples from several universities.

THE ROLE OF TRUSTEES IN CRISIS

Board members have a crucial role to play when their institutions are facing a crisis. That role is different from the role of the president, but no less important. Board members should:

1. Be available. By definition, crises arrive with little or no warning, move quickly, and are fraught with uncertainty. Smart presidents will seek to notify their boards early on, and it helps if trustees can be reached quickly. The president or board secretary should have the cell, home, and work phone numbers of trustees, and board members should tell their assistants to pull them out of meetings when the president calls and urgently needs them. We prefer phone calls over emails.

2. Help to communicate inside the board. When leading a crisis, the president will face multiple demands on her time. The board chair or another officer might volunteer to ensure that all trustees are notified and then kept apprised of where things stand as the incident unfolds over the next several days or weeks.

3. Provide support and counsel behind the scenes. Trustees should be ready to serve as a sounding board, a forum for exploring options, and a source of second opinions to presidents who are facing extreme challenges. Emotions always run high during crises, and it is natural for people to express their anger and grief in the form of criticism of institutions and leaders. Providing emotional and moral support during these trying moments can enable a president to provide better leadership to her campus. Board members can also hold conversations with influential people to help them understand the situation and to build support for the institution’s responses. During our incident, a regent helped ensure that the major funder of the program that brought the artist to campus received a full briefing. When unhappy supporters of the artist pressured the donor to take sides, he decided not to, thanks to the advocacy of a board member he respected.

4. Visibly support the president. As the example of the KKK statue demonstrates, somebody will be unhappy with something in almost every crisis. Boards can help presidents by publicly indicating their support. Behind the scenes, trustees can offer advice, counsel, and even recommendations for doing things differently, but in front of the cameras, it’s important to signal board support.

5. Allow the president to do her job. Understand that the president’s job is to provide normative leadership, not to manage the details of the operational response, a task best delegated to experts in offices such as public safety, communications, student life, and legal counsel. Give the president the time and space to focus on the six tasks. Trustees serve best by providing outside counsel, not parachuting in to involve themselves in work that is best left to the executive team. When President Mason was leading Iowa through the KKK statue incident, we appreciated that the board stepped back and allowed her to manage the situation.

6. Assist with visiting dignitaries. The highly visible nature of crisis incidents often draws politicians, activist leaders, and other high-profile personalities to campus. For example, when Northern Illinois University experienced a shooting that left six people dead in 2008, Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich came to the campus. Trustees can help to host prominent visitors and use their influence to ensure that the VIPs’ visits help, not hinder, the disaster response.

7. Help the university to learn from the experience. Every crisis provides an opportunity to examine and improve practices and policies. Boards can support the president in the critically important work of accounting and learning what must take place to reduce future risk and strengthen response capacity. Sometimes this means chairing an independent review panel like the one Texas A&M President Ray Bowen formed following the 1999 bonfire collapse that killed 12 students.

Guiding an institution as complex and vulnerable as a university through a crisis is not an easy task, and no president will get everything right. But when the trustees understand and prepare for a crisis, and competently perform their role in supporting the chief executive during the event, the likelihood of favorable outcomes is considerably higher for the university and all of its stakeholders.