The Provost’s Window: Crisis Management 101

Calm in a Crisis by Dr. Kristine Barnett

Chances are, you’ve faced a campus crisis. In fact, it’s possible that some of us are dealing with one right now or have one brewing and we just don’t know it. Whether classified as minor, major, or catastrophic, crises of all magnitudes are unavoidable for the higher ed leader.

Years ago, I started a new academic job with our very first class scheduled for September 11, 2001. The semester started as a crisis. On day 5 of my current new role, we closed a primary campus building for an unknown timeframe. We immediately relocated 25 faculty offices and 4 heavily-used classrooms. Considering that I had only been in the building once and had not met most of the faculty needing to be relocated, switching to “go-mode” was daunting to say the least.  The old saying goes that ‘it’s not what knocks you down but how you get back up;’ In my case, I drew on previous experience and channeled the wisdom of my mentors. Here is what I did and what I learned, which might be helpful for you the next time alarm bells sound:

Gather the Smart People

It was apparent that I knew very little about the campus, the building in question, and the people who called that building their work-day home, so my first call was to the dean who oversaw the division that lived in that building. After giving her time to digest the news, I asked her to help me answer a list of questions I had drafted. The questions, patterned on the classic 5 W’s used by journalists, gave me all of the information I needed to know and gave me the answers to questions I knew that someone, somewhere would ask of me. Who, what, where, when, why, and how are we to solve this problem? With the help of the dean, we soon knew the scope of the issue.

Next, I connected with the registrar who did classroom scheduling. She and I walked the campus looking at every option. The dean of students helped us assess student impact. At the end of each conversation, we recapped and reviewed the next steps, carefully confirming who was responsible for each activity and by when it would be completed.

Document the Plan

To help keep details clear and the team focused, I documented all of this information in a spreadsheet. This spreadsheet was an internal organizer that laid out all of the steps needed to quickly move faculty and classrooms and communicate to the community that the building would no longer be accessible. The document was shared with those who were assigned tasks and shared with colleagues who could suggest additional steps or things I hadn’t considered. It was a focal point for specifics, process, progress, and status. Importantly, the document became a blueprint for the next project borne of crisis.

Communicate Up, Down, and Sideways

A crisis affects each campus office and position uniquely. The President needed one thing, namely to be assured that all understood the impact of building closure on faculty and academics as he attended to other issues. The CFO focused on working with the engineers and calculating expenses to address campus facility challenges. The VP for Student Affairs focused on campus security concerns. As many faculty were away for the summer, we used a variety of communication methods and checked in frequently with updates. Yes, sending a few last emails or making several phone calls at the end of the day might use up the last of your energy, but it’s good practice to close as many loops as you can instead of leaving people with questions; not to mention making sure faculty hear the facts directly from campus officials versus the faculty grapevine. A former provost taught me well about the importance of upward communication, training me to ask myself at the end of each day one question: “Before I leave campus, is there anything my provost or president needs to know?” This daily question is now a habit.  

Our campus crisis is now managed, with the 25 faculty in temporary spaces and making the best of it. While not something I want to repeat anytime soon, the experience has been a tremendous learning opportunity for me. My wish for you is that you never have to face a crisis of any kind. However, if you do, consider the following Action Steps:

  1. Develop a crisis communication checklist. The checklist can include the names and contact information for the response team –the first people you need to loop in, including on-campus and off campus stakeholders. The checklist should include the organization’s primary spokesperson, the key audiences, and the optimal location and requirements for crisis response. The checklist can include holding notification templates, which are like the Mad-Libs of crisis communication. You just fill in the facts and details. With a tight timeframe, having a pre-approved template to complete may give you time to address other items.
  2. Create a crisis kit that includes all of the documents you and your colleagues might need in a pinch when you are perhaps not thinking as clearly. This should include the communication checklist and all of the policies and processes that clarify what to do. If your kit is a little thin, find the gaps and fill them in. In my case, I learned that I could not get my hands on a complete and updated list of campus offices and their occupants. Because the list of faculty offices was part of my crisis response plan, I lost time looking for a document that I eventually had to create. A crisis kit should have contact information, a campus map and building blueprints, communication protocols, decision trees, and any campus policies that will save you time.
  3. Take 15 minutes in the next gathering of executive leaders and review the kit. What’s missing? What new things might need to be added or updated? Commit to doing this audit at least twice per year and be sure to include other important stakeholders in the review. Your campus’ head of security, IT staff, the directors of health and mental health, facilities, and anyone else who is influential on campus should be included in the conversation and might very well have much of the information you need in a pinch.

A little proactive thinking now will serve you well when you face that inevitable crisis.  

Kristine Barnett, Ed.D is a career-long educator and academic administrator who often has a unique perspective on all aspects of academic leadership. Dr. Barnett has cobbled together a career at a variety of institutions that have afforded her several different scenic vistas. For the most part, her leadership has been focused on small, private, liberal arts women’s (or former women’s) colleges. Barnett is new to her position as a Provost/VP of Academic Affairs at an independent liberal arts college in the southeast, affording her a new window and a new view. In her spare time, Barnett works with doctoral students in the Bay Path University EdD in Educational Leadership program.

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