Virgil Scudder
Virgil Scudder

“We simply weren’t prepared for it, and we paid a dear price.”

That was the sentiment of more than one university leader when Gaza-related protests rocked many major campuses last spring, leading to physical confrontations between heavily armed police and unarmed demonstrators, hundreds of arrests of students and faculty members, dismantling and destruction of demonstrators’ property, illegal occupation of a university administrative building, at least one prestigious institution reporting a drop in fall enrollment because of televised confrontations on and near its campus, and both Jewish and Muslim students on many campuses saying they didn’t feel safe.

The images of the spring will not soon be forgotten. Indeed, the reputational damage to these institutions is severe and could be long lasting.

What happened? In most cases, it was as simple as failure to anticipate and prepare. In many cases, school leaders, caught off guard, escalated a peaceful situation through overreaction.

In any field, preparation is the key to success. Preparation means situation analysis, creating a game plan, and executing it in a timely and effective manner. It appears that few, if any, of the affected schools had a Crisis Readiness Plan.

Without proper planning and preparation, this fall’s on-campus situation could be as bad or worse. Rest assured the demonstrators will be back. That’s a given. What’s not a given is whether university leaders have learned from their past bungles and put together effective crisis management plans.

Some university leaders may be communicating with key constituencies on these situations now. One would hope so, but I’ve seen no reports to that effect. Let’s hope they are.

One of the finest crisis control experts I’ve ever met is Kathryn Blackwell, a brilliant communications professional with a long pedigree in corporate relations who now lives in South Carolina. She and I have collaborated on helping many large corporations through severe crises, often involving fatalities.

I recently asked her if she thought the on-campus situation would be better or worse this fall and here’s what she said, “If universities learn from past mistakes and prepare properly, it could be better. If not, it could be as bad or worse.”

She added, “Here’s what we know. Passions on both sides of the Israeli-Gaza issue have not cooled and they are not likely to cool soon barring a ceasefire and some resolution of the conflict. Unfortunately, a resolution does not appear to be imminent.”

Let’s hope she’s wrong and that things soon get better in Gaza. But she rarely is.

Here are some initial recommendations for university leaders.

  • Start right now to create a crisis readiness plan.
  • Bring in outside advisors with demonstrated expertise in crisis management to help in preparing this plan.
  • Study what happened last spring. Reach out personally to protest leaders and influential faculty, invite them into the president’s office, and listen to them.
  • Express sympathy for their positions and seek common ground. Find areas that you can agree upon such as that everybody involved in any demonstrations should commit to non-violence.
  • If unable to act on some of protesters’ demands, such as in some cases disinvestment from Israel, tell them why you won’t be able to do so. Then, tell them what you can do such as sending a letter to the Board of Trustees expressing, but not necessarily endorsing, their positions.
  • Set a firm but reasonable policy on where and when demonstrations can be held.
  • Fully brief law enforcement officials on how you are handling the situation and, while they should be on standby, the presence of more than a few uniformed officers should occur only if and when trouble breaks out.
  • Brief key local news media on background on what you’re doing and why. Well informed and sympathetic media coverage is essential in such disputes.
  • Finally, establish a small student-faculty-alumni council to meet periodically and offer reactions and suggestions.

In so many ways, last spring’s problems represented a failure of communication. These impassioned demonstrations were always going to represent a challenging situation, but it didn’t have to be as bad as it was.

Better planning and better leadership will bring better results.


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