Making Institutional Statements in Times of Conflict

The following compilation was developed by PRG partners Julie Peterson, Steve Kloehn, and Lisa Rudgers based on our own experiences and a review of best practices nationally.

One increasingly difficult, and perplexing, question for college presidents and their senior leadership teams is determining when to issue an official university statement in the midst of crises or concerning developments, whether they occur on campus or elsewhere around the nation or the globe. 

Much has been written about this topic in recent years, and it’s no wonder. (See the end of this essay for a resource list of further reading.) The criticism that followed nearly every statement by a university president in response to the conflict between Israel and Hamas is a painful reminder of the inherent challenges. And that is just the most recent example. College leaders were also praised and pilloried for their response to the murder of George Floyd in 2020, the January 6 insurrection in Washington in 2021 and the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision in 2022, to name just a few. The expectation that university leaders will speak out in response to events beyond their campuses only appears to be accelerating, even as many leaders express growing reservations about taking on that role.

There may be very good reasons for a higher ed leader to make a public statement in a given situation: to reinforce and clarify important institutional values, to communicate concrete action steps your institution is taking and to convey caring and concern for your campus community. 

One poor reason to make a statement is because you think that the right magic combination of words will satisfy everyone and relieve the pressures you are under as a leader. On nearly every important topic of the day, the range of diverse and strongly held beliefs means that whatever you say — and don’t say — is likely to leave some portion of your audience unsatisfied, and perhaps angrily so. Trying to mollify critics has led some leaders into an embarrassing and unproductive cycle of statements, criticism, re-statements, more criticism and yet more statements, each time further inflaming debate both on and off campus.

The best course, then, is to do what you believe is the right thing based on your institutional mission and values and your responsibilities as the leader of a complex institution. Prepare yourself for the fact that you will face criticism, no matter how well you choose your words, and find a path you can defend with integrity. 

A corollary to the reality that statements cannot fix things is that actions speak louder than words. When we counsel our PRG clients, we nearly always focus on what they can do, concretely, to address the issues at hand. Is there an opportunity for teach-ins by your faculty? Does the teaching and learning center need to provide just-in-time training for instructors to hold difficult classroom conversations? Can you train student leaders and activists on how to protect their privacy? Put counseling staff in the places where students are gathered? Create a task force to work on preventing and addressing expressions of hate? Offer seed funding to help faculty or student scholars add to our understanding? 

Importantly, look for opportunities for the president and other senior leaders to meet in person with representatives of affected communities. Your time and presence, and your willingness to listen, often speak far louder than a campus email. And the relationships built during those moments are a critical foundation for addressing future events. This is particularly important in an ongoing crisis such as the violence in the Middle East, where campus leaders must be focused not just on tomorrow, but on next week and next month.

Finally, if you decide that the president should issue a statement or campus message, move quickly and speak concisely. You need confidence in an initial set of facts in order to speak, but you also need to understand that you will never have every fact. The longer you wait, the greater scrutiny each word will get and the less your messages will do to build goodwill and common cause.

Below we offer some guidelines and best practices for responding, sourced from our own experience and the readings listed below. 

Core values to consider:

  • Keep your educational mission in mind. How can you use this moment to advance teaching, learning and scholarship? How can you center your response in the stages of student development, even as you reinforce community expectations and consequences?
  • Remember that you are leaders of the entire institution. How can your statements and actions embrace all members of your community, while acknowledging those who have experienced differential harm? How can you avoid demonizing certain groups or further polarizing the community?
  • What are your institutional values around academic freedom and free expression? How can you help make it safe for faculty to engage in teaching and scholarship, and provide the community with the platforms and skills needed for difficult but honest conversations?
  • What are your values around diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging? What opportunities can you create for members of your community to feel seen, heard, valued and respected?

Preparatory work:

  • Pre-work and productive relationships with key groups of leaders in the quiet times will pay off when times of conflict erupt. Do you have a core group of mature and like-minded university leaders who can stand together and make decisions collaboratively and nimbly?
  • Have you developed healthy and respectful relationships with key external leaders and influencers who may represent affected stakeholder communities? How will your team educate your board, key donors, faculty and staff leaders and student leaders about core university values around educational development, academic freedom, inclusion, civil discourse, etc.?
  • How can your leadership team continuously surface these values and engage in ongoing conversations about what kind of community you strive to build? How do you model these values in daily, small decisions so they become widely socialized?
  • Have you communicated proactively and consistently on key topics — Title IX, campus climate, free expression, campus safety, etc. — in advance of any crisis?
  • How will you establish a range of leadership voices — the board chair, provost, vice president for student life, vice president for diversity and inclusion, athletic director, deans and others — as credible representatives over time, such that the burden for speaking does not fall solely on one person?
  • How can you use “case studies” of developments at other institutions to work through scenarios and develop leadership capacity, from the board on down?
  • Does your team have clarity in advance about roles and process — who will be responsible for helping to create an institutional statement, who will be responsible for reviewing it and who has a say in the final decision? How will the core team communicate with other campus leaders, such as deans, who may feel they need to make a statement?

Criteria for when to speak:

While the following criteria are not dispositive, considering these factors may help tip the balance for or against making a statement in a particular situation:

  • Does the incident connect to the institution’s mission and strategic priorities and/or violate your stated values?
  • Does the incident directly affect the campus community (including a significant population of your alumni) and/or require institutional action to help people function and feel safe?
  • Is the incident geographically proximate to your campus?
  • Do you have an institutional history/context on this topic that makes it more significant?
  • Do you have something meaningful and unambiguous to say?
  • Are there supportive resources that should be made widely available, or resurfaced proactively, for the good of the campus community?
  • Is there a call to action — even if the call to action is as basic as asking members of the community to support one another?
  • Can you talk about this issue in a nonpartisan way? Do you work (particularly for public institutions) in a political context that would bring about a costly backlash if you were to speak?
  • Is the topic at hand generating intense interest in your community, such that you are receiving encouragement from widespread and diverse sources to speak out?
  • Are your institutional peers speaking out on this topic?
  • Have the president or other senior leaders spoken out on related topics in the past in a manner that creates precedent or would create a perceived inequity if you did not speak out now?
  • Have other campus leaders spoken out on this topic previously, but it has now escalated to the point where the campus needs to hear from the President?

Best practices for statements:

Based on research over the last three years analyzing dozens of statements by university leaders, the Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab (PERIL) at American University recommends that statements “should be a manifestation of an institution’s core identity, signaling its unwavering dedication to principles that promote unity and understanding, regardless of the divisive issues at hand.” Other best practices include:

  • Speak quickly; acknowledge that the situation will continue to evolve and commit to updates as new information emerges.
  • Be explicit about the connection to your mission and values.
  • Consult diverse leaders and perspectives to inform your response, but don’t over-consult to the point where it slows you unreasonably and/or waters down your language into mush.
  • Acknowledge what you know and don’t know.
  • Use specific language to characterize what occurred.
  • Exhibit compassion and empathy, acknowledging pain and harm. 
  • Write like a human; the more personal, the better. Avoid jargon and platitudes.
  • Consider the mindset, needs and preferences of your audiences. Don’t assume everything needs to be a campus-wide email. A video message, short post on social media or even a meeting may be better in some situations.
  • Don’t “speak at” your community; rather, create channels for listening and multi-directional communication.
  • Support campus leaders, board members, and those in key alumni ambassador roles before, during and after a public statement by giving them advance notice along with talking points and FAQs, where appropriate. Ask them to monitor their networks and provide them with channels for communicating back to you what they are hearing. And don’t forget to thank them for the valuable role they are playing.

 

Further reading:

College Presidents Debate When to Speak Out — and When to Keep Quiet, Chronicle of Higher Education, November 16, 2023

Vanderbilt Leader: Universities Must Uphold Institutional Neutrality to Allow for Debate, The Tennessean, November 7, 2023

PEN America CEO: Why College Presidents Seemed Flummoxed, CNN, November 6, 2023

Tom Ginsburg, University of Chicago: The Case for University Silence, Persuasion, October 25, 2023

Jennifer Ruth, Portland State: The Uses and Abuses of the Kalven Report, Chronicle of Higher Education, October 24, 2023

Crafting Institutional Statements Amid Conflict (based on research by the Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab at American University), Inside Higher Ed, October 21, 2023

Speak Out on Israel-Hamas War or Stay Quiet? Both Are Risky, Colleges Find, Wall Street Journal, October 19, 2023

How Should College Presidents Speak About the Unspeakable?, Chronicle of Higher Education, October 18, 2023

Gregory Washington, George Mason University: ‘We Can’t Remain Silent’: How This President Crafted a Response to ‘One of Humanity’s Most Complicated Topics,’ Chronicle of Higher Education, October 18, 2023

The Wisdom of the University of Chicago’s ‘Kalven Report,’ Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), October 12, 2023

Tatiana Tetlow, Fordham University: 10 Tips to Help Shape Your Presidential Voice, Higher Ed Dive, February 6, 2023

Why College Presidents Don’t Speak Their Minds, Chronicle of Higher Education survey of presidents, July 26, 2022

Steven C. Bahls, Augustana College: One President’s Playbook for Public Statements, Chronicle of Higher Education, July 26, 2022

Melissa Richards, Hamilton College: Statement or No Statement?, Inside higher Ed, May 25, 2022

Angela Paik, Cause & Effect Strategies: The Leader’s Voice, LinkedIn, September 10, 2021

Pete Mackey, Mackey Strategies: When Should University Presidents Speak Out?, Inside Higher Ed, January 19, 2021

Chicago Principles on Freedom of Expression, 2014

Kalven Report, University of Chicago, 1967

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