Best Way to Contain a Crisis? Practice

As seen in Inside Higher Ed

LONG BEACH, Calif. — It takes most colleges and universities a generation or several to build their reputations. How long does it take to potentially tear one down? Less than an hour, in many cases.

In the case of the Citadel, the answer was 14 minutes, which was the length of an entire event — some of which was captured in photographs that went worldwide in a matter of moments — in which a group of student cadets sang Christmas carols while wearing pointy white pillowcases with eyeholes on their heads, evoking the Ku Klux Klan.

Such an incident would have been horrific and potentially devastating at any point. But unfolding at the South Carolina military college as it did in late 2015, as the surrounding community in Charleston was still reeling from the mass shooting at an African Methodist Episcopal Church months earlier, and as the University of Missouri and other campuses were engulfed in racial protests, the stakes for the Citadel’s leaders were high.

Fortunately for them, as a group of current and former Citadel administrators explained at a session here at the annual meeting of the National Association of College and University Business Officers, they hadn’t been sitting idly by as protests roiled peer institutions. (It wasn’t raised during the session, but the stakes were almost certainly higher for the Citadel than they might have been for many other colleges and universities because more than most, its history of racism, alongside hazing and other unflattering traits, was laid out for all to see in the 1980 novel The Lords of Discipline.)

“Our senior team talked a lot about what was happening at the University of Missouri, and what if something like that were to happen at the Citadel,” said Connie Ledoux Book, the Citadel’s provost at the time and now president at Elon University, in North Carolina. “It helped us perform better when we had this event with the students.”

Lots of campus leaders may read that statement and think, “Well, we talked about all that, too.”

But officials at the Citadel didn’t just talk about how they might handle such a crisis; as a military-oriented institution led until last month by an Air Force lieutenant general who cut his teeth leading the U.S. Air Force Academy out of its infamous sexual assault scandal and serving as the chief Pentagon spokesman during the 2002 deployment of U.S. troops to Afghanistan, the college used a distinctly disciplined, regimented approach to crisis management, its leaders explained. Its key elements: Transparency. Core values. And practice — lots of it.

Highly unusual for a higher education conference, the discussion was filled with military talk — about how campus leaders can’t assume that nobody will find out about a potential crisis, for instance, because “hope is not a course of action in the military, because people die,” as John W. Rosa Jr., the former Citadel superintendent, put it. And how crises are almost certain to arise on campuses because, as Rosa described it, they are filled with “young people sitting on gas cans with lighted matches” that can be struck at any point.

Book, who had arrived at the Citadel months before the pillowcase incident without any military background, admitted to struggling with the very non-higher education way of thinking.

She learned from Rosa and Cardon Crawford, the Citadel’s director of government affairs and its “crisis action team leader,” that the research-based decision making that she had been used to doing as a lifelong academic wouldn’t cut it in situations in which an institution had “10 minutes to try to stabilize a situation, regain the initiative, [take] control of the battle space.”

Citadel officials worked through case studies on a regular basis (drawn, they said, from these pages among others) to try to build muscle memory and anticipate scenarios so they were as prepared as possible for the real thing. Part of every exercise involved asking what the likeliest scenarios were, as well as the “most dangerous” possible outcomes.

That served them well when local reporters called and said the newspaper planned to publish news of the photographs of the cadets in apparent Klan attire — and told Citadel officials they had 10 minutes to provide a statement.

Book acknowledged that not all of her tendencies were productive. As the provost, “I was angry that it happened the night before exams” when the cadets should have been studying, she told the other members of the crisis team at the time. In addition to the disturbing racial element, “that picture also reflects a lack of academic rigor.”

Crawford, a longtime Army soldier, told her, in his politest Southern drawl, “With all due respect, ma’am, the enemy has a gun aiming at your face, and you’re shooting at a target 300 yards out” — his way of telling her, Book said, that she “needed to stay focused on the immediate crisis at hand,” where the biggest threat lay.

“I also had to move out of my comfort zone with my reflective process,” she said.

The Citadel met its deadline that morning with a statement saying that the photographs were “not consistent with our core values of honor, duty and respect” and that it had begun suspension proceedings against the involved cadets.

That action helped to temporarily “stabilize the environment.” It didn’t stop Citadel leaders from taking heat — the Reverend Al Sharpton, among others, called for Rosa’s resignation, and a legislative leader obliquely warned him that the institution’s state appropriations might be at stake if the involved cadets weren’t expelled. But a timely investigation (which found that the freshman cadets had been ordered to sing carols in a variety of costumes, and they did not realize just how bad the “ghosts of Christmas past” costumes would look) resulted a month later in one expulsion, two suspensions and other on-campus discipline, which was generally accepted as appropriate by civil rights leaders in the region.

The Citadel leaders acknowledged that they didn’t always get it right; Rosa recounted a 2011 incident in which, four days after word of Jerry Sandusky’s molestation of boys at Pennsylvania State University first emerged, a former counselor at a Citadel camp came forward with an admission that he had molested 50 boys, and with Rosa out of pocket at a series of homecoming events, subordinates put out a “lukewarm statement” to the press. “Within 12 hours, there was blood in the water,” he said.

And while they acknowledged that every campus is different and that not every institution might feel comfortable with its military-trained approach to crisis leadership, their focus on preparation and transparency seemed to resonate with many campus leaders in the room.

“It’s not a matter of if you’ll face a crisis,” said Crawford.

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