David Ball
David Ball

Frequent news accounts of hate crimes and bias incidents on college campuses serve as a reminder that we still have a long way to go to achieve equity in higher education. The halls of academia aren’t necessarily any more equitable or inclusive than any other community.

While administration, faculty and students are often quick to condemn these acts, their persistence is the real concern. This should worry us all. College and university presidents have a responsibility to build a culture of diversity, equity and inclusion. This is both an ethical responsibility and a practical one; ethical because every leader must lead, and that includes rooting out hate and creating opportunity for all, and practical because widely reported incidents of hate create major reputational damage, limit the field of prospective faculty and students and damage the standing of the institution and its funding.

Like most other chapters in the crisis communications and management playbook, dealing with bias incidents and hate crimes transparently and proactively will allow the campus community to recover sooner and, hopefully, foster a more enlightened culture that will decrease the likelihood of additional incidents.

This article is featured in O'Dwyer's Jan. '22 Crisis Communications & PR Buyer's Guide Magazine
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Our firm has been engaged to advise the leaders of educational institutions in these instances, and we’ve seen some courageous acts of leadership. For example, a university president awoke an entire dorm at 6 a.m.—the same dorm where hate-filled messages had been found the night before—to let them know that hate would not be tolerated on campus and that he was making an appeal on that chilly morning for greater civility.

Beyond hate crimes and bias incidents, inequity can be quite institutional in nature, such as a university with a team name and mascot that’s offensive to indigenous people. Team names and derisive mascots and imagery are racist and perpetuate tropes that create harm. Would an indigenous student or faculty member want to come to a campus where a Native American “war cry” is chanted during football games?

College and university presidents can’t look away and pretend these situations don’t create harm. Whether it’s a hate crime, microaggression or a policy or tradition that creates inequity, educational leaders must act swiftly and with determination to call it out and work to eliminate it.

From our experience, there are six key communications steps leaders can take in these situations, with the twin goals of creating a more tolerant campus community and avoiding reputational damage among key stakeholders—current and prospective students, parents, alumni and donors—and the public.

Condemn it

Campus leaders must be unequivocal in calling out and denouncing any hate crime or bias incident on campus. These incidents can’t be ignored. If one person on campus is harmed, then everyone is harmed. The college or university administration has a responsibility to create an inclusive, accepting and safe environment.

Be transparent

Colleges and universities should have a simple, online process to confidentially submit information on a bias incident or hate crime, and they should post online every bias incident or hate crime that has been verified by campus authorities. By being so transparent, it further reinforces the message that transparency rules the day. Self-reporting—rather than sweeping incidents under the rug—can eliminate extended negative news coverage.

Talk about it

Faculty and staff should be empowered and encouraged to talk about any incidents that do occur. They also should maintain an ongoing dialogue on DEI, in the context of the challenges that students of diverse backgrounds experience on campus and in their lives. It has to be incorporated into everyday campus life.

Support safe spaces

Colleges and universities must create and support opportunities for BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ students to gather safely and supportively with peers, through the formation—and in some cases, financial support—of clubs or physical spaces, or by leveraging the resources of campus religious organizations and community affinity groups.

Find partners

A college or university president might find that they don’t have all of the resources they need on campus to deal with bias incidents or hate crimes. In that instance, outside organizations like the Anti-Defamation League can be strong partners. Responding to hate crimes has, sadly, become a daily task for the ADL, and they can bring a level of expertise that may not exist on campus. When it comes to demonstrations and counter-protests, leaders must simultaneously urge calm while ensuring that university and local resources are prepared for conflict and even violence.

Train and educate

When it comes to building an inclusive campus, the work never ends. DEI must be the subject of continual training and education among faculty, staff and students. Speakers who reflect diverse viewpoints must be brought to campus and the significant accomplishments of all faculty and students must be recognized.

College and university leaders must embrace every opportunity to advance DEI and create a welcoming climate on campus. Just as we advise every other CEO, it’s important that college and university presidents not hunker down and hope crises will avoid them or pass quickly, but to create an environment where crises are less likely to happen.

When bias and hate happen, leaders need to be direct and forthcoming and work in partnership with allies to help their community recover. This will enable healing, set an example for other institutions and affirm to stakeholders that hate has no home on campus.


David A. Ball is the President and CEO of Ball Consulting Group, LLC, a strategic communications firm in Newton, Mass. that specializes in health care, nonprofits, education and crisis communications.