Virgil Scudder
Virgil Scudder

There is only one good kind of crisis: the one avoided. Many crisis situations that make headlines and damage organizations could have been avoided or, at least, mitigated. The leadership of too many U.S. universities failed to get that message this spring and, caught off-guard, made critical mistakes.

As death and despair mounted in Gaza, it was obvious that Israel’s devastating response to the horrendous actions of Hamas in October, justified or not, would stir a backlash in the form of pro-Palestinian and cease fire demonstrations. Any crisis specialist could have predicted it. There was absolutely no reason for so many university presidents to be blindsided.

But they were. As a result, some of the largest and finest universities in this country suffered severe reputational damage. They paid a high price for their lack of foresight and preparation.

What exactly would that preparation entail?

More than anything else, an ear to ground. Listening sympathetically to complaints and concerns of faculty and students and showing respect for them and their views. Building trust and relationships through regular dialogue with student and faculty leaders.

A place for peaceful demonstrations should be designated in advance with clear guidelines for peaceful protest widely distributed. Uniformed law enforcement should not be called in unless trouble breaks out. Demonstrators want to be heard, not embattled.

But too many university leaders panicked. Handicapped by their lack of foresight and preparation, they overreacted in a variety of ways. We saw pictures and videos of protestors being beaten and dragged off by police in riot gear, elderly professors being zip-tied and hauled off to jail, violent physical confrontations on at least one campus as police stood idly by, and police snipers stationed on the roof of a student union building looking down on a peaceful demonstration at a large state university in the Midwest. These actions were inflammatory. The arrests of nearly 3,000 people nationwide further worsened the situation.

In my view, most of this could have been avoided with proper preparation and measured response. Most of the demonstrations were peaceful until the police moved in.

The damage to these institutions will be long-lasting including potential loss of faculty and students, donations, and reputation.

Here are key takeaways from these lapses in governance and leadership.

• Crises can’t always be avoided but they can usually be foreseen and at least mitigated with proper foresight, preparation, and communication.

• Administrators need to do a better job of establishing ongoing relationships with student and faculty leaders, seeking and listening to their concerns before grievances turn into outbreaks.

• Overreaction invariably escalates the problem. Police coming to the scene in riot gear or uniformed officers bearing guns or batons can be more likely to cause violence than prevent it. Such intimidation increases anger and resentment.

• University leaders must head for the front lines, not hide in the ivory tower, as soon as a demonstration begins. They should go to the scene and hear the demonstrators out, then calmly explain the university’s positions and options along with a thank you for the input and agreement to hold future meetings with the demonstration leaders.

In sum, true leadership requires transparency, communication, and very often, courage. When these elements are lacking, the damage can be severe and long-lasting.

Hopefully, peace will return to Israel and Gaza before the fall semester begins. If it doesn’t, we’ll find out just how much these universities learned from their mistakes of the spring. The time to formulate, and start acting on, a game plan is now. Tomorrow may be too late.

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Virgil Scudder is President of Virgil Scudder & Associates, LLC, located in Miami Beach, FL. He is a specialist in media training and crisis communications.