Presidential Leadership in Time of Crisis

 

Philip L. Dubois

President, University of Wyoming

 

            Like most university presidents, I spend a lot of my time communicating with internal and external constituents about the accomplishments of my institution.  Whether addressing the local community service organization, meeting with the editorial board of a local newspaper, or issuing the annual “State of the University” address, my focus is on those things that are sources of institutional pride and public support: when our enrollments increase, when faculty or students win prestigious recognitions, when our budgets are enhanced by supportive legislators and the governor, when new buildings or renovation projects are completed, when alumni and friends contribute to our private fundraising success, when our research contracts grow, or when our athletic teams trounce the traditional rivals. 

 

Most presidents, I would guess, are interested in leaving a legacy of accomplishments that will mark their tenure in office.  They can only hope that, years after they are gone, others may look back and decide that his or her leadership as president had helped the institution become stronger or defined it in new ways.  Less likely to be remembered is how an institution or its president reacted in times of crisis unless, of course, the leadership provided during the crisis was misguided, mistaken, not apparent, or entirely absent.  As one observer has noted, “[w]hile good deeds often go unnoticed, crises never do.  This is because your stakeholders . . . are measuring your conduct during the crisis.  They know that a crisis does not make character—it reveals character.”[1]

 

            Notwithstanding the many points of pride I might cite during a presidency that marks the completion of my sixth year this past April (2003),  it is also the case that those six years have been marked by a number of institutional and individual crises, notable by their number and scope:

 

·        The death, in the third week of my first year as president, of a football player during spring practice (subsequently determined to be due, at least in part, to an enlarged spleen as a result of mononucleosis);

 

·        The vicious beating and subsequent death in October 1998 of a gay University of Wyoming student, Matthew Shepard, a tragedy that drew national and international media attention;

 

·        The local trial and sentencing of Mr. Shepard’s assailants, events that occurred almost precisely one year after his murder, and which involved members of the faculty, staff, and student body as prospective jurors;

 

·        The death of a student in the spring of my second year who barricaded himself in a study room on the 12th floor of a campus residence hall and subsequently jumped to his death in full view of fellow students and residence hall staff;

 

·        Multiple campus bomb scares in the aftermath of the Columbine High School mass murder, and the group exodus of African-American student athletes from campus housing to local hotels when rumors circulated to the effect that the Columbine shootings may have been racially-based in part and might stimulate “copy cat” slayings;

 

·        Campus reaction to the attacks of September 11, 2001, in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania;

 

·        The simultaneous and instantaneous deaths, five days after September 11, of eight members of the men’s cross-country and track teams in a head-on automobile accident on a highway south of Laramie.  Investigation revealed that the accident was caused by an intoxicated UW student, headed in the opposite direction, who crossed the center line and struck the vehicle containing the UW student-athletes.    

 

·        The death of a UW theatre and dance student from respiratory and cardiac arrest suffered during his participation in rehearsal on campus for an upcoming dance recital.  Fellow students were unable to revive him from what turned out to have been an allergic reaction to aspirin. 

 

·        In the aftermath of the death of eight student-athletes in a drunk driving accident, the arrest of the star wide receiver of the UW football team following a non-injury accident in which it appeared that the student was driving while intoxicated. 

 

Although the particular number, combination, and severity of events that have visited my tenure may be unusual, it is of course the case that most university and college presidents will, at one point or another, be faced with at least one significant institutional crisis.  There are those who like to say that the job of a university president is, in fact, one long crisis interrupted by brief periods of normalcy!  But, wags and pundits aside, “a crisis is not simply a bad day at the office”[2]  It is often an event, or series of events, that bring virtually all “normal” University business to a halt and command the full attention of the President and his or her senior officers for days, weeks, or longer.  In the words of those who have studied crisis management in industrial settings, crises may manifest themselves “like a cobra” where the institution is taken by surprise.  Others may manifest themselves “like a python,” crushing the institution over time.[3]  In the worst possible case, the crisis comes to be embedded in the public consciousness as the defining image of the institution.[4]

 

Just a casual search of the Chronicle of Higher Education5 over the past several years reveals the broad spectrum of crises that can affect our institutions: 

 

·        The November, 1999 death of eleven students, one alumnus, and injury to twenty-seven others in the collapse of the campus traditional homecoming bonfire at Texas A&M University;

 

·        An intentionally-set residence hall fire at Seton Hall University in January, 2000 that killed three students and injured fifty-four others;

 

·        The deaths in January, 2001 of two basketball players and six others affiliated with the Oklahoma State University basketball program in the crash of a private chartered aircraft;

 

·        Murders of faculty members (Dartmouth, 2001); the murder of faculty members by disgruntled students (Wayne State, 1999); murder-suicides of the same type (University of Arkansas, 2000); murders of students by other students (Galludet, 2001); a fatal gunfight between groups of students from neighboring colleges (Catawba College and Livingstone College, 2002); or disquieting patterns of student suicides over a period of years (Harvard, 1999; MIT,2000).

 

·        At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a 1997 hazing incident at one of the campus fraternities that resulted in a student’s death.

 

·        Dismissal of a controversial Division I-A basketball coach (Indiana, 2000)

 

·        Campus reaction to the distribution of racist and hate-filled emails (IUPUI, 2002).

 

·        Mass student protests to force the removal of a faculty member and former chancellor accused of sexual harassment (Indiana-South Bend, 2001).

 

·        Public, legislative, and campus reaction to the assignment to incoming freshmen of a scholarly book about the Koran, implicating issues of academic freedom, legislative intrusion, and church-state relations in the context of a post-September 11 world (North Carolina-Chapel Hill, 2002). 

 

·        The suspension and ultimate dismissal of a tenured faculty member believed to have tangible connections to terrorist organizations linked to the September 11 attacks (University of South Florida, 2002-03).

 

·        Nude frolicking by students in connection with the advent of winter (Princeton, 2000), the advent of spring (Michigan), or the end of classes (Ithaca College, 1999), resulting in alcohol-related misbehavior, destruction, and personal injuries. 

 

·        The management of constituent reactions to the playing of a naked co-ed soccer game at a church-related college (Luther College, 1997).

 

·        The almost annual scramble by institutions named by the Princeton Review as one of the nation’s top “party schools” or by U.S. News and World Report as one of the nation’s top academic institutions to disavow the former and affirm the latter. 

 

These various crises, which typically arise out of behaviors conducted by or visited upon one or more members of the university community, say nothing of the crises that confront institutions that are the victims of floods (Colorado State, 1997; North Dakota institutions, 1997), earthquakes (California State-Northridge, 1994), hurricanes (Florida and Louisiana institutions, every year!), or other natural disasters that threaten human life, the physical assets of an institution, or may disrupt its normal operation for an extended period of time.  Whether the crisis is generated by humans or inflicted upon them, the results for the institution concerned is just about the same—all-consuming.  And while the particular and peculiar circumstances of each crises undoubtedly demands its own response, I hope it will be useful to use just two of the crises that have confronted the University of Wyoming to unearth a few useful lessons that may help other university leaders who come to face to face with such events.    

 

            For this purpose, I will focus on the two most significant crises faced by my institution during the past few years:  the murder of gay UW student Matthew Shepard, and the accidental death of eight student-athletes (hereinafter referred to as “The Eight”).  I begin with a fairly detailed description of each crisis, hoping that some readers will be able to benefit from seeing how we responded at the time.6  I then attempt some reflection on what we learned from each. 

 

The Murder of Matthew Shepard.

 

            I was headed to a meeting at our student union on a beautiful October morning in 1998 when my vice president for student affairs, Jim Hurst, caught up alongside.  He wanted me to know that campus police were reporting that a UW student, as yet unidentified, was in the emergency room of a Fort Collins, Colorado hospital with severe head injuries from what appeared to be a vicious beating.  Poudre Valley Hospital in Ft. Collins, located 80 miles south of Laramie, is a Level II trauma center, so the very news that the student had been transported there was not good.  Since it was not unusual to receive news of a serious injury to a student or even a student’s death on one of Wyoming’s long icy roads, I had great confidence in the ability of Jim and his staff to kick our standard procedures into gear to deal with the student and his parents, to alert the appropriate instructors, and to make available the full range of support and counseling services to the friends and family of the victim.  Unsettling news, to be sure, but business as usual from my viewpoint.

 

            Later that day, when Jim and one of our campus police lieutenants showed up unannounced at my office, I suspected that “business as usual” had ended.  He informed me that the victim, Matthew Shepard, was a UW student and that there was a possibility that other students were involved in the attack.  I asked my assistant to take the lieutenant’s list of names and run a quick check against our Student Information System.  We quickly confirmed that one of the women who would be charged as an accessory after the fact, Chastity Pasley, was a student who worked part-time in our student union.  The two men who would be charged with the attack, Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney, were not UW students and never had been, nor had the second young woman, Kristen Price, also to be accused as an accessory after the fact.  We determined that Matt himself had just enrolled as a student for the first time in September, and we were barely a month into the semester.  We quickly learned, through our student activities office, that Matt was a member of the campus Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgendered Association (the LGBTA). 

 

            By fall 1998, Jim Hurst had been vice president for student affairs at the University of Wyoming for the better part of fifteen years.  His calm, supportive, and empathetic demeanor—characteristic of his counseling psychology background—had endeared him to students, faculty, staff, and senior administrators.  His was a couch most of us visited at one time or another.  He was not prone to exaggeration, overstatement, or alarm.  For these reasons, his words that afternoon on the doorstep of Old Main still remain vividly in my mind:  “Phil, if Matt Shepard dies and this turns out to be a gay bashing, this could become the University of Wyoming’s ‘Kent State.’” 

 

            By Friday morning, the newspaper stories were out and the lead article by the leading regional newspaper, The Denver Post, erroneously reported that the victim and all of those accused were University of Wyoming students.  This misinformation appears to have come from a student employee of the UW student newspaper who happened to be in the office when the Post reporter called to determine whether those involved were students.  Unfortunately, neither newspaper bothered to call anyone in an official position to check upon the student status of those arrested for the crime.  But the damage was done, and the Associated Press then picked up the Post story for the national wire to be repeated and retold endless times over the next few days.  While our public relations staff promptly worked to correct that error, the fact that it wasn’t true never got the same amount of attention. 

 

            This was the beginning of the longest two weeks of my life.  Anyone who has served in a senior position of campus leadership knows the cardinal rule of University administration—if good things happen at the institution, it is due to the hard work and dedication of individual faculty, staff, and students. If bad things happen, the institution—and its leadership—are responsible. Because of the initial but erroneous media reports, we were immediately placed on the defensive trying to answer a question we surely could not answer:  What had the University done—or not done—to foster in our students such hatred and violence toward another?  Over time, we were criticized for being “defensive” in attempting to correct misinformation.

 

            By Friday afternoon, I had arranged join the Albany County sheriff on the steps of our county courthouse to address the media gathering from around the region.  At this point, while it was clear that Matthew was a gay man and had been “out” for some time, it was not at all clear that the crime had any hate-related elements to it.  The facts were simply not known.  A brief confidential conversation with the sheriff, just prior to my remarks at the microphone, suggested that the crime may have been motivated by robbery.  When I directly posed to him the question of whether there were any elements to suggest that the assault was a “gay bashing,” he said that it would be unwise to so conclude until the investigation could be completed.  With that rather limited information, I chose to direct my statement to the press (and our accompanying press release) solely to our concern for Matt and his family. 

 

Almost as quickly as those statements were consumed by the media, we began receiving e-mail that my statement was completely inadequate; that I should have, at a minimum, suspended the accused students; and that I should have taken immediate steps to correct the hateful environment at the University that had fostered attitudes such that  students would attack a fellow student:  “How can President Dubois sleep tonight,” wrote one individual, “knowing that his leadership has resulted in the loss of a young mind, crushed beyond the ability to even sustain breathing at this time?” 

 

Saturday was the beginning of UW’s “Homecoming” and we had the usual full set of events planned for the weekend, including those to honor distinguished alumni.  Jim had called together a standing body that had existed for some time at UW—the Crisis Management Team—and we determined that, while we shouldn’t cancel Homecoming, we would do everything we could to acknowledge what was beginning to emerge around us.  I dispatched Jim to Fort Collins to deliver a personal note to Matt’s parents to let them know of my concern and our availability to help in any way that we could.  Unlike most similar situations, the hospital—sensing that this particular assault was attracting unusual media attention—erected a high net of security around Dennis and Judy Shepard to protect their privacy.  Jim left the note but was unable to speak directly with Matt’s parents.

 

By Saturday morning, it was clear that a massive outpouring of protest was beginning to develop.  Whatever law enforcement may have been willing to say about the actual motivation behind the attack, that perspective was, by this point, irrelevant.  The gay community, the larger community, and media from around the country had concluded that this was, indeed, a hate crime. 

 

 Initially, the protest was led largely by our students, and especially our minority students through our Multicultural Resource Center (MRC).  The students came up with the idea of wearing symbolic yellow armbands with green circles—the yellow symbolizing anti-violence and the green circle representing international peace.  Other student groups, most notably the student government and fraternity/sorority leadership, pitched in to assist in the mass production of the armbands.  The armbands, and a large yellow banner with large green circles, were first seen that morning at the traditional Homecoming Parade, where a spontaneous “mini parade” of several hundred persons tagged onto the end of the usual array of antique cars, flatbed trailers, local bands, and homemade floats.  Other banners denouncing hatred and violence, made by local citizens, lined the parade route.

 

I ordered a moment of silence at the afternoon football game where the players (and members of our other athletic teams) had voted to put the yellow and green symbol on their helmets or on their uniforms; one could have heard a pin drop except for the sounds of people weeping quietly.  The traditional Homecoming Sing and Alumni Recognition Dinner that evening went about the same way.

 

            By Sunday, Matt’s condition was being reported as grave; a candlelight vigil organized by the Catholic Newman Center was scheduled for that evening on the grounds of the Center located immediately across the street from the University.  Along with LGBTA leaders and the Newman Center pastor, I was asked to speak.  Figuring that this was a “teachable moment” for my three children (at that time aged 15, 12, and 7), my wife and I brought the entire family.  It was a powerful and moving ceremony, conducted under the watchful eye of the national media and reported on all of the major network morning shows on the next day.

 

            By that time, however, the vigil was old news; Matt Shepard had died Monday morning at approximately 1 a.m., MST.  A 3 a.m. telephone call from a CBS radio reporter to my home awakened me with the news.  He needed a quote for the morning drive-time show in New York.  I asked his indulgence in allowing me to collect my thoughts.  After a quick shower, I called him back, again expressing my condolences to the Shepard family and reassuring the New York caller that Laramie was like most small towns and large cities in America.  Hate does not have a geographic bias; it could—and did—happen everywhere.  

 

The circus had started.  Ironically, it was the first day of the University’s scheduled “Gay Awareness Week.”  My Monday was spent fielding requests from television and radio media for interviews; our Crisis Management Team assembled to plan a late-afternoon memorial ceremony that would be attended by hundreds in the full glare of the national media.  I conversed with the Governor about flag etiquette, and received his acquiescence to lower campus flags to half-staff.7

 

We also began receiving requests for information about where concerned citizens might send donations to support the Shepard family or to establish scholarships in Matt’s name.  A similar fund had already been established at the Poudre Valley Hospital so, after listening to a lively debate among the Crisis Management Team, I decided that we would redirect all donors to the Poudre Valley fund, with the message to be conveyed that our interest was in supporting the Shepard family until decisions could be made about how such funds might be best utilized.8

 

            I’ll leave it to others to explain why this particular murder of a gay man attracted the national attention that it did.  As NBC anchor Tom Brokaw mentioned in his report on Monday evening, there were over 8,800 hate crimes reported in America in the prior year.  For some reason, this one was different.  Suffice it to say that a number of powerful icon-like images cast across the nation during the first few days after Matt’s attack and subsequent death drew national and ultimately international attention—the vulnerable and viciously beaten gay young man who was just over five feet tall and weighed just a hundred pounds; the buck fence on a barren plain where his lifeless body was found; widely-held stereotypes of what life in rural America must be like, particularly in a state nicknamed “The Cowboy State;” and the fact that Wyoming was one of just a few states that had failed to pass hate crimes legislation.  Whatever the attraction, a small town with no television station and one daily newspaper that publishes less than two dozen pages daily, six days a week, was stunned by the arrival of network satellite trucks and correspondents camped on the lawn of the Albany County Courthouse representing all of the alphabet media (NBC, CBS, ABC, FOX, CNN) and Court TV. 9   

 

            Of course, television and radio were not the entire media story.  Internet coverage and direct e-mail aimed at the campus administration and media staff allowed for repeated blows to be leveled at our collective gut.  I opened my Tuesday morning e-mail to read the following:

 

“You and the straight people of Laramie and Wyoming are guilty of the death of Matthew Shepard just as the Germans who looked the other way are guilty of the deaths of their Jewish, Gypsy, and homosexual neighbors during the Holocaust.  Unless and until the people of Laramie and Wyoming repent the sin of homophobia, your city and your state are not different than Auschwitz, no different than the killing fields of Cambodia.  You have taught your children to hate their gay and lesbian brothers and sisters.  Unless and until you acknowledge that Matthew Shepard’s death is not a random occurrence, not just the work of a couple of random crazies, you have his blood on your hands….Shame on you, President Dubois.  Shame on Laramie.  Shame on Wyoming.”

 

            People within the Laramie community were equally upset with the reportage of an Associated Press writer from New York who implied that the murder may have resulted from a socio-economic split in Laramie that made possible the murder of a well-dressed, seemingly wealthy young man by two down-and-outers from “the other side of the tracks,” where skinny stray dogs ran down dusty streets.  I don’t have space here to list everything the writer got wrong, but this article, printed in newspapers nationwide, helped reinforce the notion of Laramie as a biased cow town.

           

            Media coverage only heightened as the day approached for the Shepard family funeral to be held in Casper, Wyoming, a 2.5 hour drive north of Laramie.  Enter stage far right—the Reverend Fred Phelps from KansasWestboro Baptist Church, an organization dedicated principally to the excoriation of homosexuals based upon Phelps’ literal reading of biblical passages.  His internet address (godhatesfags.com) says about all that needs to be known about him and his group.  Phelps brought a small band of protesters to Shepard’s funeral to “demonstrate” against Matt Shepard, his homosexual “lifestyle,” and homosexuality generally.  Although most people ignored Phelps on this intensely sad and snowy day, a few of Matt’s younger friends and acquaintances chose to directly confront Phelps in verbal exchanges that, Phelps certainly knew, would become a clip on the evening news.  Since Phelps had announced publicly his intention to bring his followers to Laramie, our University police chief was posted nearby as an observer so that we could know what to expect.

 

            Back on campus, and with the concurrence of the Shepard family, I decided that we would hold a campus memorial service, just about two weeks to the day after the initial attack.  During all of that previous week, our Counseling Center staff had been working overtime counseling students, staff, and faculty to deal with their personal grief and the trauma that had descended upon the community.  Faculty members had responded to the request I made through our chief academic affairs officer for the organization of small “teach-ins” on campus to address issues identified around broad themes related to the tragedy—prejudice, social justice, violence, and sexuality, among others.  The University was in a unique position to help our students understand what had happened and why, and our faculty was simply spectacular in responding to the call for them to do so.10

 

            The memorial service, attended by a capacity crowd of 2,000 in our largest campus auditorium and covered by the local and regional media, was brief and dignified – psalms, a specially written poem, music from our multicultural chorus, and statements from representatives of LGBTA and the mayor.  I used my then-expected “clean up” position, to summarize what had happened and what I thought it meant for our community.11  In my remarks I included a personal call for Wyoming to enact hate crimes legislation.  Following a carefully worded disclaimer to indicate that the views I would express were mine alone and not those of my institution or my Trustees, I expressed the view that it was time for Wyoming to live up to the promise of the state motto (“The Equality State”) and to recognize in our written law that we had a collective zero tolerance for hate, even if such a law would not have spared Matt Shepard his life or produced a more severe punishment for those accused of his murder.12

 

            I had hoped to awaken the next day to feel that the “crisis” of the past two weeks had past, but the front-page headlines of the morning paper and the story quoting my call for hate crime legislation reminded me that, notwithstanding my disclaimer of the prior evening, a university president is not allowed to have a personal opinion.  This is surely true in most political environments, but it is magnified in Wyoming where the President of its only four-year institution of higher learning is widely perceived to be the second most visible public official, behind only the Governor.  To many, it appeared that the President was trying to upstage if not embarrass the Governor and the Legislature on this specific issue.13

 

            Life returned to “relative normal” throughout the balance of the fall semester and throughout the spring, though my public relations staff and I continued to respond to what would be hundreds of media requests, e-mail messages, letters, and phone calls regarding Matthew’s murder.  Jury selection in March, 1999 for the trial of Russell Henderson sparked the expected amount of angst among faculty, staff, and students concerned about how their classes and professional lives would be accommodated if they ended up serving on the jury for an extended period of time.  The county attorney, frustrated during the jury selection process by large numbers of prospective jurors claiming personal conflicts or philosophical objections to the death penalty, asked me to issue a statement reminding members of the University community of their civic responsibilities.  Although more than a bit put off by a request that seem aimed only at University personnel and not the larger community, I agreed to issue a statement clarifying the policies we had in place to accommodate the needs of  faculty, staff, or students selected for jury duty.     

 

Reverend Phelps and his band of protestors showed up at the Albany County Courthouse to protest the first day of the trial, only to be surrounded in silent protest by a dozen LGBT students and friends dressed as angels, who raised enormous wings to block any view of him by the media or the passing public.  That scene was repeated later in the day in front of our student union.  The city mayor and I collaborated on a letter to the editor of the local and student newspapers suggesting that the best way to deal with Phelps’ brand of hatred was to ignore it, to starve it with indifference. That tactic worked well, as we avoided any meaningful confrontations.

 

            The community and the campus were spared a trial that spring, as Henderson agreed on the eve of the trial to enter a guilty plea in exchange for being spared the death penalty.  Henderson’s girlfriend, who had in December entered a guilty plea to being an accessory after the fact, was sentenced for her role.  McKinney’s girlfriend, who would later testify in his trial the following fall, ended up pleading to the misdemeanor offence of interference with a police officer.  Much to our horror, the judge made a decision to push back McKinney’s trial until fall; eventually, we would learn that jury selection would begin on the Monday following our scheduled fall Homecoming—ironically, precisely one year after the events of the preceding year.

 

            In the meantime, popular singer Elton John had requested an opportunity to perform a benefit concert on campus, a request we readily accepted.  His sold-out June concert, conducted in our basketball arena, raised about $250,000 for a variety of John’s favorite causes, including the initiation of a fund to create a distinguished chair in our law school dedicated to social justice issues.14 

 

            The coincidence of McKinney’s trial, the one-year anniversary of Matt’s death, and our annual Homecoming brought a surreal feeling to the weekend of October 8-10, 1999.  It was again Gay Awareness Week.15  The yellow and green symbols re-emerged in the annual Homecoming parade.  A candlelight vigil, with many of the same participants from the Newman Center vigil of the year before, was held on campus just prior to a concert by folksingers, Peter, Paul, and Mary.16  Those at the vigil were given an opportunity to sign a “pledge of nonviolence” on large boards erected on our campus quad and then to walk together to the concert.  A powerful and moving performance by Peter, Paul, and Mary was punctuated by the on-stage appearance of Dennis and Judy Shepard, and the lighting of penlight candles throughout the 2,000-seat auditorium.  A post-concert reception held at my home was an eclectic mix of members of my staff, invited special guests and University donors, Dennis and Judy Shepard, and leaders in the LGBTA.  Peter Yarrow of the group joined us, while Paul returned to the hotel in the company of Mary who had, earlier in the day, been treated at the local hospital for altitude sickness. 

 

            Three weeks later, Aaron McKinney was convicted of two counts of felony murder, but acquitted of first-degree murder.  Although the felony murder counts carried the possibility of the death penalty, a sentence bargain encouraged and supported by the Shepard family resulted in two consecutive life sentences.  The “crisis,” at least as experienced by the University, was over. 

 

The Eight. 

 

            On Friday, September 14, 2001, UW conducted a campus memorial service for the victims of the terrorist attacks of September 11, a scene repeated on literally hundreds of university and college campuses that week.  Our campus quad, known as Prexy’s Pasture and the site of two memorials for Matthew Shepard, was once again pressed into duty.  Our Crisis Management Team, so well-versed in how to put such a program together, did so quickly.  The Pasture was packed with people for as far as one could see.  All of us left drained, sharing the nation’s sadness over the loss of human life, its anxiety in the uncertainty over how our leaders would respond, and our own concern for members of Laramie’s Muslim community.  I remember going home right after the noon memorial saying to myself, “Boy, I’m glad that’s over!”

 

            Like most Americans, I spent the weekend glued to my television, with occasional attempts to reach my wife, Lisa, who was stranded in Europe and unable to return from a brief trip taken with her mother.  I was in the middle of my Sunday morning newspaper when I received a call from my vice president for student affairs, now Dr. Leellen Brigman.  She reported that there had been a terrible automobile accident shortly after midnight on the highway from Laramie to Fort Collins, Colorado, and that as many as four UW students were injured or dead.  Details were not yet widely known, but she said fog may have been a contributing factor.

 

            Within two hours, the horrible details were upon us.  Eight male students, ranging in age from 19 to 22, had been simultaneously killed when their Jeep Wagoneer, traveling northbound at a speed later estimated at 62 m.p.h., was struck virtually head-on by a southbound 1-ton Chevrolet pickup truck, later estimated to be traveling 76 m.p.h., on U.S. Highway 287 south of Laramie.  The Jeep had, in the words of the investigating officer, “exploded” upon impact, ejecting all of the occupants except the driver.  Even those who had been wearing seatbelts were not spared.  Fog wasn’t a factor; the night was clear.

 

 All eight victims were members of the UW cross-country and/or track teams and were en route back from a day in Ft. Collins on a non-competition weekend.  The driver of the truck, 21-year old Clinton Haskins, was also a UW student, a member of the rodeo team, and under arrest with a tested blood alcohol level of .16 several hours after the accident; Wyoming’s limit was at that time .10.  Haskins was also seriously injured and hospitalized with a lacerated liver, a bruised heart, and bruised lungs.  Evidence at the scene showed that Haskins’ truck had crossed the center line to collide with the Jeep.  Autopsy results for the driver of the Jeep later showed his blood alcohol level at 0.00. 

 

The story quickly appeared on the Associated Press wire and was picked up by major news organizations for their Web sites, and later for broadcasts and newspapers.

 

By mid-day Sunday, our Crisis Management Team was assembled, augmented this time with the Athletics Director and members of his staff, including Athletics’ Sports Information Coordinator.  In addition to agreeing upon my public statement, we agreed to establish a web site where information about the victims could be posted and comments could be left by well-wishers, an idea we had taken from the experience of Oklahoma State University in dealing with the airplane crash that had taken the lives of students and staff associated with their basketball team. 

 

I called the Governor to tell him what we knew, and to give him the names of the families affected.  Five of the victims and five of the ten families affected were from Wyoming, a close-knit state once described by a former governor as “one small town with very long streets.”  State and campus flags were already at half-staff for the September 11 victims by direction of the President of the United States, but I let the Governor know that I intended to keep the campus flags lowered until after all of the families had buried their sons.  Cognizant of the public thrashing he had taken from the veterans’ groups when the flag had been lowered for Matt Shepard, this was one of those situations where it was better for me to beg forgiveness than ask permission.

 

Since the Athletics Director reported that student-athletes were hearing the news of the accident as they assembled back on campus at the end of the weekend and needed complete information and access to counseling, separate team meetings were arranged for all seventeen of UW’s men’s and women’s intercollegiate teams later that afternoon.  Plans were in formation for a candlelight vigil at the site of the “bucking horse and rider” statue near the athletic complex.  Prior to the vigil, the AD and I assembled all of the coaches together to provide our own expressions of support and to detail the campus resources they could call upon to assist their teams deal with the death of their eight friends. 

 

A crowd estimated at from 700 to 2,000 assembled in a drizzling rain that evening for the candlelight vigil.  Photographs of each of the eight boys had been set up on the grass around the bucking horse statue.  Flowers and candles in large numbers began to appear, to be joined later in the week by cards and notes, running shoes, track uniforms, and other memorabilia brought by the families and passersby.

 

There is no way to describe the collective mood of those at the vigil. As one student quoted in the local newspaper observed, coming on the heels of the September 11 attacks and the campus memorial that previous Friday, the emotional environment was like “blackness on blackness.”  The vigil was led by the male and female captains of the cross country team, who invited teammates or other friends of the victims to offer their personal reflections. 

 

            I had not prepared remarks, but I was prepared to give remarks.  I told the students what I felt:  in my 51 years up to that time, a tragedy had never hit me as hard as this one.  Although the death of Matt Shepard was difficult in its own right, the death of eight was almost overwhelming.  And, with three children of my own in a state known to harbor the lethal combination of dangerous highways and alcohol abuse among its youth, it was not hard to picture myself in the posture of any of the ten sets of parents for The Eight.   I urged the students to go home and call their parents.  “Tell them you love them.  If you have something unsaid to a brother or sister, say it.”  What I didn’t say, of course, was that I could also picture myself in the posture of the Haskins family, with a son badly injured in a hospital and likely to be facing eight charges of vehicular homicide.  No one at the memorial had to say it but everyone knew it—nine lives had been wasted that day.

 

I left the microphone to move about the crowd, looking to comfort any students I might know and to introduce myself to the members of the cross country team.  Although I know many presidents take personal pride in getting to know large numbers of student-athletes, I have always tended to keep my distance, believing that neither the Governor nor the President had any business in a locker room.  I knew that I would be seeing a lot of them in the next few days, however.  

 

The next morning I visited Clint Haskins in the local hospital.  Although his injuries were significant, he was expected to fully recover.  Surrounded by a handful of his friends, I spoke briefly with Clint and his mother, indicating that our Student Affairs staff would be available for any questions he might have relative to his classes or counseling he might desire.  He was released later in the week and was able to make a personal appearance at a Friday bail hearing which resulted in his release on a $100,000 bond and a requirement imposed by the judge that he continue attending University classes.

 

Since University personnel were not consulted by the judge concerning the conditions of Haskins’ bail, we were unaware until some time later of the judge’s requirement that Haskins continue attending classes. Following Haskins’ release on bail and acting upon the recommendation of both my chief academic officer and the student affairs staff, I called Haskins’ father to suggest that Clint’s temporary withdrawal from school might be in his best interest, particularly if other students were to confront him concerning the accident and its consequences.  Moreover, if Haskins’ presence were to be disruptive to the educational process of other students, I would have no choice but to issue a suspension.17  The Haskins family, then under the smothering advice of legal counsel, thanked me for my call but made no immediate decision.  Later, Haskins would return to classes without incident. 

 

In the days that followed, hundreds of expressions of condolence flooded into the University through telephone calls, letters, cards, and e-mails from sympathetic citizens, alumni, former teammates of The Eight, cross country runners from other teams in our conference and around the country, and people connected with Oklahoma State University or Texas A&M who knew first hand of the impact of such tragedies upon campus communities.  Contributions to a memorial fund established for The Eight mounted quickly, eventually reaching nearly $215,000.18

 

            In the immediate aftermath, there were a host of decisions to be made that were important, largely from a symbolic standpoint. A home women’s soccer game, already rescheduled as a result of the September 11 attacks, was postponed again; so, too, was a home women’s volleyball game. Our Student Affairs staff followed suit, canceling all scheduled intramural competitions for the balance of the week. 

 

            We assigned the Dean of Students to serve as the primary University contact with the ten families.  As the former director of our counseling center, Dr. Andrew Turner  brought superb credentials and the appropriate temperament to this difficult task.  We knew that our student-athletes and others in the community would expect a campus memorial service, but we didn’t want to have such a ceremony without the concurrence of the families, and we certainly could not have those discussions until the families had time to make their personal arrangements for the burial of their sons.  

 

            Funerals or memorial services for The Eight began on Tuesday, the 18th, and were held daily through Friday night.  Since it was logistically impossible to attend all eight funerals (two were out of state and one was in Canada), we used the Crisis Management Team to ensure that we had appropriate University and athletic department representatives at each.  A University flag accompanied the lead representative for each funeral and was to be delivered to the family.   Lisa, my wife, and I attended five of these heart-breaking services.19  The University airplane transported my Vice President for Academic Affairs and cross country team representatives to the service held in Canada. 

 

            Prominently displayed by University personnel and student-athletes at the funerals and around campus during that week were small decals containing a winged running shoe (modeled, I presume, upon the winged foot of Mercury) with the number “8” emblazoned on it.20  I later learned that the winged foot had special meaning to the cross country team members who, before every meet, had recited a prayer that included the words, “give us wings so we can fly.”  These decals eventually found their way onto the backs of the helmets of the football team and our other athletic team uniforms, as did the American flag in memory of the victims of September 11.

 

            In the midst of this chaos, we had been planning the campus visit of Vice President Dick Cheney on September 28.  A UW alumnus, Vice President Cheney had agreed to visit campus to participate in our annual Honors Convocation sponsored by the College of Arts and Sciences.  I was reasonably certain that the events of September 11—and the Vice President’s hibernation in the now infamous “undisclosed location”—made it unlikely that he would be able to appear.  To ease his decision-making process but also in recognition of the tremendous amount of stress my staff was under, I called the Vice President’s assistant to suggest that a postponement to a future date would be appropriate.  The White House readily agreed; I issued a public announcement to the effect that we had mutually agreed upon a postponement,  much to the chagrin of some students (who didn’t know any better) and some Arts and Sciences staff (who should have known better). 

           

            With the concurrence of all ten families, we arranged a campus memorial service for the following Tuesday, ensuring that the time and date would make it possible for all of them to attend.  Through our Dean of Students, we conveyed our willingness for the University to pay all transportation and hotel expenses for the families if they required such financial assistance.21

 

            With instructions given to faculty that they should exercise liberal discretion in releasing students from classes to attend the memorial if they wished and release time issued for staff, more than 3,500 crowded the Arena-Auditorium for the service.  Speakers included the Governor (on behalf of the people of the state), coaches and team captains, the Athletics Director, and me.  Several universities from the Mountain West Conference and one regional school not associated with the MWC sent delegations of members from their cross country teams.  Large photographs of each of the lost student-athletes were displayed on either side of the podium; a candle in honor of each was lit by a male and female member of UW athletics teams.  A celebratory video prepared by the Athletic Department staff, “Always a Cowboy,” was shown.  A brass bell, symbolizing each athlete’s last lap, was rung eight times. 

 

            Lisa and I hosted a post-memorial reception and dinner at our home for the members of the families and the coaching staff.  Each family was presented with a gift bag containing a copy of the celebratory videotape, a framed photo of the candlelight vigil, a book containing all the e-mails, notes, cards, and letters of sympathy we had received, and the memorial service program.    

 

            The remaining members of our men’s cross country team, joined by some redshirt freshmen who voluntarily gave up a year of eligibility and middle distance runners recruited from the track team, returned to cross country competition in October.  Drawing upon the metaphor of the bucking bronc rider, the team captain observed that “cowboys always get back up.” 

 

            Throughout the week of the funerals and thereafter for many months, public debate centered around the causes of the accident.  The county attorney, seeking to buttress a vehicular homicide charge against Haskins, suggested at the bail hearing that the rodeo team in general and Haskins in particular had a history of alcohol abuse.  Haskins had at least two previous citations off campus for underage consumption and, later investigation revealed, one on-campus citation during his freshman year in the University residence halls.  Other organizations, including Mothers Against Drunk Driving, focused on the inadequacy of Wyoming’s laws relative to driving while intoxicated. 22  

           

            Others, including most prominently the father of the driver of the Jeep (and a resident of Laramie), focused on the condition of the road.  U.S. Highway 287, running north to south from Laramie to Fort Collins, is a notoriously dangerous three-lane road, particularly in the winter months when ice and fog are often present.  Although the road itself does not statistically have a higher accident rate than other Wyoming roads, its fatality rate is three times the state average.  And nearly everyone in Laramie has had at least one personal story of a “close call” on 287 or has known someone personally affected by an accident along its long meandering and dark stretches.  The most notable of these accidents involved the University’s highly successful women’s volleyball coach who, years earlier, had sustained an irreversible coma that lasted for seven years before he died as a result of his injuries.23, 24

 

            Over the course of the next year, I corresponded frequently with the ten families of The Eight—to share copies of the videotape of the memorial service, to keep them posted on the status of the memorial fund, to solicit their ideas concerning its use and the dedication of a memorial to the boys, and to share other things that I thought might have meaning to them.  These included copies of S.L. Price’s sensitive Sports Illustrated article about the boys, and pictures of the torch that a retired member of the UW staff had carried in their honor in the transmission of the Olympic torch through Cheyenne, Wyoming on its way to the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics.

 

            By mid-spring, grief for some of the families had been transformed into anger, and the University became the target.  Several of the families, who had obviously kept in contact among themselves, wondered aloud in letters to me personally, to Dean Turner, and to the newspapers why the University had allowed Haskins to remain enrolled in school, particularly after he entered a guilty plea in March in what appeared to be a negotiated arrangement with the County Attorney.  And, as the weeks progressed closer to our May graduation date, several of the parents were angry that we were not only going to allow Haskins to receive his degree, but that we would permit him to participate in commencement exercises.  As one pair of parents noted pointedly, instead of being able to return to campus to watch their son walk across the stage to receive his diploma, they would be returning to dedicate a memorial that owed its existence to Haskins’ criminal behavior.

 

            In letters to each of the ten sets of parents, I explained that I was not prepared to stop Haskins from attending class as long as he did not represent a disruption to the educational process.  Moreover, since Haskins was not, in my view, a danger to the University community and the judge had not formally accepted a plea of guilty, I had no basis under our student conduct code to suspend or expel Haskins.  As it turns out, the scheduled date for the plea agreement to be accepted by the judge and the sentencing was postponed until nearly two weeks following Haskins’ scheduled graduation.  Haskins would be allowed to graduate and, if he chose, to participate in commencement ceremonies.  Privately, our Dean of Students worked with Haskins to encourage him not to participate in commencement.  Haskins graduated, but he voluntarily chose to avoid commencement exercises.  Two weeks later, in an emotional hearing attended by the families of the victims, Haskins’ guilty plea was accepted.  A young man, almost universally described by those who knew him as “reliable, decent, and polite,” was sentenced by the judge to 14-20 years in the state prison; fines, court costs, and restitution of nearly $90,000; and 1,600 hours of community service.    

 

            On September 13, 2002—on the same weekend of the accident just a year earlier—all ten families and hundreds of onlookers joined us to dedicate a memorial garden for The Eight.  We again covered the transportation and hotel costs of those family members requiring it.  Eight granite boulders of various sizes harvested from the U.S. 287 right-of-way near the site of the accident were selected to form the core of the memorial which also includes two benches, trees and flowers, and a bronze plaque with the silhouettes of eight runners under the words “Come Run with Me.”  I spoke, as did many of the same speakers from the memorial service of the year before, including coaches, representatives of the cross-country team, and the mother of one of The Eight.25 Members of the family were invited to tour the remodeled locker and team rooms for the cross country and track teams, renovations that had been made possible by the funds donated after the accident.26 

 

 

Leading in  Crisis:  Lessons Learned.

 

            Since the university is one of the world’s most enduring institutions and because the range of potential crises is so great, I had presumed that published studies about academic leadership or the reflections of university presidents past would be filled with helpful guidance about leading under conditions of crisis.  I was wrong.  Apart from only a few passing references to the student unrest of the 1960s on American college campuses, neither those who have studied academic leadership nor those who have practiced it have considered the challenges of leading an institution under crisis conditions.27

 

            Books aimed at the management of crisis in corporate and industrial settings are a little more helpful, particularly with respect to dealing with issues related to the media and communications.28  The value of crisis preparedness and having response plans in place prior to the arrival of a crisis also emerges from such volumes.29  It would be unusual in my experience, however, for a public institution to have the resources necessary to fully identify and assess the range of potential crises and emergencies it might face.30

 

            With that said, the crises faced by the University of Wyoming suggest to me several lessons that might be of value to others who may find themselves similarly situated in the future:

 

Lesson 1:  When confronted by crisis, seek ways to ensure that your institution is not defined by the crisis itself, but by your response to it. 

 

Both of the incidents that faced the University of Wyoming were, to say the least, emotionally wrenching for all involved.  They differed in their particulars, to be sure.  Unlike the death of The Eight, which was at its core simply a human tragedy without many downstream implications for the operation of the University or its reputation, the Matthew Shepard murder had significant political overtones and the potential to leave the public across the country with the impression that the University was insensitive to issues facing gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered individuals.  

 

In both instances, we certainly recognized the importance of distributing information from the University to the public on an ongoing basis during each crisis.  But we also recognized early on that we could not fully control, dictate, or influence media reporting and the impressions resulting therefrom.  Accordingly, as a matter of explicit direction that I gave to our staff through the Crisis Management Team, our primary motivating factor in the management of each crisis was to provide maximum institutional support to the families of the victims.  The academic literature on crisis management makes it clear that this approach is not only the right thing to do from a humanitarian standpoint, but will serve to minimize damage to the institution’s reputation.31 “Above all, remember that a crisis is a human event.  Do the right thing, especially in how you treat the people affected by the crisis.  Even the most effective communications will not make your institution appear caring and competent if your actions are not.”32

 

 

 

Lesson 2:  You can’t be prepared for every crisis, but you can be prepared. 

 

 As I suggested above and in the accompanying notes, I’m skeptical that an institution such as mine can be prepared to deal with every conceivable adverse event that might confront it, whether the result of natural disasters, internal crises, or external events.  Minimally, though, having in place a standing Crisis Management Team turned out to be indispensable to UW’s ability to manage each of these two major crises.  No time was wasted in determining who needed to be around the table to address the crisis at hand, and no time was wasted in assembling a group to fashion the strategy that would guide the campus response.

 

In our case, that group has a standing membership consisting of the President; the vice presidents of academic affairs, student affairs, and administration; the Dean of Students; the director of the Counseling Center; the director of University Public Relations; the director of Physical Plant; and the chief of the Campus Police.  That membership can and was augmented to meet the circumstances of each crisis.  In the Matthew Shepard case, one meeting of the Crisis Management Team resulted in decisions to invite the Mayor and the City Manager, the local police chief, the director of campus housing and residence life, and members of the local clergy.  In the case of The Eight, I arranged to have our initial meeting include the Director of Athletics and key members of his staff, including the senior associate director, the coordinator of Sports Information, and the head of our athletic booster organization. 

 

Lesson 3:  Many media representatives are lazy; just plan for it. 

 

Although the Matthew Shepard crisis would undoubtedly have unfolded pretty much as it did without regard to how the media handled the early hours of the story, there is no question—at least in my mind—that the public’s reaction in the first few days were the result of careless media reporting relative to the connection between the University and the alleged killers.  At that critical phase and throughout the crisis, our University Public Relations staff did a tremendous job of monitoring the media and seeking corrections whenever possible.  The same was the case in the case of The Eight, when initial media reports of the Highway Patrol’s accident report had misspelled the names of the victims and incorrectly identified their home towns. 

 

Another aspect of media management that, in retrospect, seemed important was the level of training I had received and the experience that I and other senior members of my administration possessed in dealing with reporters, particularly the broadcast media who seem to look almost instantaneously for a place to assign blame or responsibility for the inexplicable.  The ability to appear non-defensive in response to the “when did you stop beating your spouse” question, to answer the question you wanted them to ask, and to deliver the answer in under fifteen seconds can make a tremendous difference in whether the message you want to appear on the evening news actually will do so.  

 

Our University Public Relations staff also actively sought out opportunities for me to meet with the most prominent media, those with the broadest reach and impact upon the public.  In the case of Matt Shepard, I was able to make significant appearances on CNN, Court TV, and Denver bureaus of the major networks both at the time of the tragedy and a year later when they returned for the McKinney trial and the one-year anniversary memorial events we had scheduled.  You’ll never be able to stop reporters from trolling your campus or your community in search of the proverbial “village idiot,” and most times they’ll find him.  As a result, it is advisable to take every opportunity you can to tell your institution’s own story in your own words. 

 

Our University Public Relations staff also understood the impact of the Internet in ways that I did not, both in terms of the value of responding to individuals who chose to write to us and in posting information on the University web site that might be helpful.  In the case of Matt Shepard, since the initial reports seemed to suggest that the attackers were students, we launched a comprehensive listing of the various diversity-related educational initiatives that the campus had already undertaken lest it be thought that we had been completely negligent in this area.  In the case of The Eight, the web site not only helped convey information about the victims and the memorial services scheduled, but provided a place for grieving individuals to share their thoughts and feelings with the University and the families of the victims. 

 

Lesson 4:  In times of a severe crisis, the President’s voice matters and it may be the only one that does.

 

Although University responses to many events are capably handled by a chief academic or student affairs officer or the University’s public relations staff, both of the major UW crises convinced me that there is no substitute in times of community trauma for one comforting voice.  And, although every rule probably holds its own exception, that voice at a university must be the president’s.   Call it the Giuliani Effect, if you wish.

 

For most Presidents, who come to expect that their words will routinely be disparaged (or even ignored) in Faculty Senate meetings or satirized by columnists in the student newspaper, it may be difficult to appreciate that, in cases of severe crisis, members of the community will look to them for words of comfort and even inspiration.  For those moments in time, the President’s values are the institution’s values, and they cannot be conveyed with passion and meaning in a press release or by a press spokesperson.  

 

Whether speaking in the initial hours of a crisis or at a significant planned event, such as a campus memorial, it certainly makes sense for the President to call upon his or her personal staff to prepare a first draft of remarks to be delivered.  I’m fortunate in that my director of University Public Relations, Jay Fromkin, has a keen understanding of my administrative and personal values and almost always finds a way to choose just the right thoughts.  Still, in almost all cases, it is up to me to take his ideas, add my own, and put it all in words that I feel comfortable saying so that the audience will appreciate that they emanate from my heart and not from the page in front of me.  During times of crisis, the President may be not only the chief executive officer, but also mourner-in-chief.

 

Lesson 5:  Symbols matter, and so does substance. 

 

I’ll leave it to those who understand how humans deal with severe trauma better than I to explain the importance of tangible symbols (like the armbands and the winged running shoe), candlelight vigils, memorial ceremonies, concerts, and other activities to bring communities together in times of crisis and to help people deal with their emotional reactions.  I believe, however, that each of the events we held in the case of both Matt Shepard and The Eight—those at the time of each crisis itself and those scheduled as remembrances a year later—were helpful to the members of our campus, the families of the victims, and the larger Laramie community in dealing with their grief.  Whether we achieved what the popular cliché seems to capture in the word “closure” can’t be known.33   

 

At the same time, such moments cannot be allowed to obscure substantive issues or concerns that may emerge during or in the aftermath of the crisis.  This was certainly the case almost immediately after media attention focused on the attack on Matt Shepard.  National media noted that Wyoming was one of the few states that, up to that time, had not enacted a hate crimes statute and did not have the full range of anti-discrimination statutes to protect homosexuals in housing, employment, and health care.  National gay activist groups quickly noted that the University’s official policies and procedures did not extend the same kind of access to University services and protections forbidding discrimination based on race, gender, religion, and national origin.  The University’s employer-paid benefits, including health, dental, and life insurance, were available only to married couples and did not extend to homosexual (or heterosexual) domestic partners.  There was no mandatory diversity requirement in the university’s curriculum, or specific major or minor courses of study dedicated to gay-lesbian studies.  And, although there was an existing Multicultural Resource Center which served as a gathering place for ethnic minority (and white) students, there was no similar place to serve as a safe haven for LGBT students. 

 

Indeed, well-intentioned attempts by the University to help the community express its collective emotion through symbolic avenues can run stiffly up against the concerns of others for substantive change.  Beth Loffreda captured these sentiments perfectly in interviews she conducted with the LGBT community after the Elton John and Peter, Paul, & Mary concerts:

 

“Travis told me he saw the (Elton John) concert as, at best, a symbolic gesture that gave straight residents of Laramie a temporary chance to feel good about themselves. . . . Mary Jane Trout enjoyed the concert but still felt it let some folks slide off the political hook. . . . Numerous gay residents told me the same thing:  the concert was a lovely thought, but the money (raised by John) could have been better spent elsewhere, creating lasting, public space for gay life in Laramie and Wyoming. . . . But, as one student put it to me, clapping for Elton John one week wasn’t going to make it any safer for gay men and lesbians the next.  And, it seemed to me, as I listened to straight professors tell me how moved they had been by the concert, how important it was, that a purchased ticket and a few shed tears didn’t count much as political action; and that it was a dearly bought mistake to let oneself think otherwise.”34

 

Some of the revelations relative to the University’s policies and procedures were news to me, but were relatively easy to address.  Although the University had, for the better part of a decade, maintained a statement of nondiscrimination/anti-harassment which included sexual orientation, that requirement had never been formally incorporated in the large number of campus policies that contained nondiscrimination clauses of one sort or another. No one in the administration with any institutional memory could recall even the faintest hint of claims that the University had been guilty directly or indirectly of discrimination and attributed the failure to amend University policies as much to institutional laziness than anything else.  My subsequent proposal to the Board of Trustees to include the same list of ten prohibited bases of discrimination in all University regulations and policies was unanimously adopted, and almost without debate.35

 

There was then, and their remains to this day, no way for the University to independently address the extension of employer-paid benefits to domestic partners, heterosexual or homosexual.  By statute, the University is a participant in the state of Wyoming’s group health insurance system which is funded and controlled through the state legislative process.  Quite apart from the question of whether a majority of state legislators and the governor could be convinced that extending domestic partner benefits to unmarried heterosexuals or homosexuals would be desirable as a social policy, the state’s struggles with properly funding its group health insurance program for married couples and their families has rendered any such discussion politically moot. 

 

            On the other hand, by administrative directive I was able to extend certain University-provided benefits to domestic partners, including access to our recreation, athletic, and housing services.  And a campus policy on “bereavement leave” and “sick leave” that had been interpreted locally only to apply to traditional nuclear families was “reinterpreted” with the stroke of a presidential pen to include “all members of an immediate household.” 

 

            We were also able to address the matter of space for the campus LGBT community through the creation of a “Rainbow Resource Room,” a small facility that contains a large number of purchased and donated educational materials on LGBT issues. That particular approach, modeled on the Multicultural Resource Center, permitted us to be responsive to the LGBT concern while avoiding the almost certain criticism that we were providing space to the “gay student group” but not to any of the other student groups on campus who have no place to call their own. 

 

            Finally, in response to the criticism that we had focused on symbolic palliatives to the exclusion of substantively dealing with LGBT and other human rights issues, we were successful in securing an anonymous private gift of $1 million to support diversity-related educational programming.  When matched through the state’s matching gift program, we were able to create a $2 million endowment for these programs.  Included among these is the annual Matthew Shepard Symposium for Social Justice, rapidly emerging as one of the most significant events of its kind in the greater Rocky Mountain region (http://outreach.uwyo.edu/conferences/justice/). 

 

            We certainly have a long way to go in addressing the substantive concerns of our LGBT faculty, staff, and students, but there can be no question that the crisis itself had the positive outcome of raising our awareness of just how far. 

 

            The substantive issues that arose as a result of the accident that took The Eight were not nearly as important but still instructive.  Comments attributed by the local newspaper to the County Prosecutor and the coach of the University rodeo team at Haskins’ bail hearing prompted me to examine the rodeo team policy on drug and alcohol use.  That examination resulted in the development of a more stringent rodeo team policy to bring it in line with the same policy used in intercollegiate athletics. 

 

Similarly, evidence brought forward during the investigation about Clint Haskins’ record of prior alcohol abuse made it eminently clear to the University, the local law enforcement community, and the city and county judges that there was no meaningful system for aggregating information about a single individual’s alcohol-related offenses.  Had such a system existed, Haskins might well have received appropriate University- or court-ordered counseling or sanctions that might have made him less likely to get into his truck after drinking.  Shortly thereafter, under the leadership of our vice president for student affairs, we formed the “A-Team” to address the need for a communitywide approach to alcohol education and enforcement (http://uwadmnweb.uwyo.edu/ AWARE/ATeam.htm)

 

Lesson 6:  Don’t let the crisis override your principles, but don’t let abstract principles get in the way either. 

 

In any period of turmoil or emotional stress, it is easy to make decisions that are based upon emotion rather than principle.  My opportunity came with the arrival on campus of Reverand Phelps and his anti-homosexual protesters during the trial of Russell Henderson.  Not only was Phelps personally offensive to me and nearly everyone I knew, but he had peppered my office repeatedly with repulsive fax announcements that, as frequently as not, named me personally as part of what Phelps saw as a grand conspiracy to protect and pander to the homosexual community.  When Phelps indicated that he planned to protest at the University,  my initial reaction was not to allow anyone who had condemned me to Hell to come onto my campus; if I had to invent a reason to justify his exclusion (e.g., being unable to ensure the safety of Phelps and his followers), I could get creative.  Fortunately, sober second thought prevailed36 and we arranged a space we could secure for Phelps to protest, with armed officers posted nearby and on the surrounding rooftops.  In the end, when the silent LGBT angels surrounded Phelps with their silent protest and obscured him from the view of all passersby, his hatred was dissipated into the spring air.  Our principled commitment to the First Amendment, academic freedom, and other central University values did not have to be sacrificed. 

 

On the other hand, abstract principles may have to be tempered on occasion to deal with the circumstances of each crisis.  In the late afternoon on the day after Matt Shepard’s beaten body and been discovered and transported to the hospital in Ft. Collins, my executive assistant alerted me to the organization of the candlelight vigil for Matt to be held on the following Sunday evening.  The pastor of St. Paul’s Newman Catholic Center, Father Roger Schmit, had called to see whether I would speak on behalf of the University.  My immediate reaction was that I didn’t want to do that.  It didn’t seem appropriate, at least at first blush, for the President of the state’s only public university to participate in what I was sure would be a religiously-oriented vigil.  My assistant, who had learned that she could usually steer me straight once the venting was over, simply waited for the end of my powerful lecture on the separation of church and state, looked up from her desk at me, and said, “You need to be there; you really need to be there.”  I made the decision to attend and to speak; it was the right decision (see Lesson 4, above).

 

Lesson 7:  When facing a crisis, look to the institutions that have been there and done that – and, when possible, learn best practices before you need them.  

 

            Although the Matthew Shepard tragedy unfolded in a way that did not prompt us to any other institution for assistance, we benefited immensely from our colleagues at Oklahoma State University and Texas A&M universities in dealing with the loss of The Eight.  Both of those institutions had, within just the previous two years, suffered catastrophic losses of their own.  Upon learning of the accident that claimed The Eight, both our public relations staff and our athletics staff contacted their counterparts at each institution to learn more about how they had dealt with the families, comforted students and other members of the campus community, responded to media inquiries, organized memorial services, and managed the large volume of public expressions of sympathy and condolence that came in from around the country.  Fortunately, our public relations staff already had internalized the lessons from the Oklahoma State tragedy while it was taking place and built a Web site for The Eight by the afternoon of the accident.  Although we had to make our own decisions about what approaches would best fit our campus and serve the families of the victims, the lessons learned by others who had previously faced awful times were immensely helpful to us.

 

            Lesson 8:  You’re not a Super Hero.

 

            I’m lucky to be one of those people who doesn’t experience physical or emotional symptoms from the stress of the job as President.  As my wife enjoys observing, I don’t seem to feel the effects of criticism because I don’t really care if anyone likes me—and that’s a good thing because no one does!  I’ve always tried to practice what one of my mentors told me early on in my administrative career:  “If you like to have people like you, that’s fine; if you need to have them like you, better get yourself a dog!”

 

But campus crises of the kind I’ve described here are, by definition, not the normal “stuff” of administration that we experience day in and day out.  They bring about strong emotions, not only on campus but within the University leadership.  You and your senior staff are not only likely to experience all of the same personal reactions of shock and horror as everyone else, but will bear the additional burden of having to make significant decisions under conditions of stress and fatigue.  You may be smart enough to know that the campus community will need to have counseling and other support services available, but the crisis may obscure your vision with respect to your own personal needs for such counseling and support. 

 

            Parents always live with the haunting possibility that one of their children may die unexpectedly from an illness or an accident. It tends to be something that our subconscious mind will acknowledge, but our consciousness keeps suppressed from interfering with daily life.  Months after the Matthew Shepard tragedy, though, I discovered that I had developed an abiding sense of vulnerability with respect to my own children.  However remote the chances that one of them might be kidnapped from a local bar and murdered, what should have remained buried within my brain kept popping up in my head.  The normal worry of waiting up for a teenage son to return home from a Friday night party became, at least for a period of months, an agonizing fear. 

 

            The deaths of The Eight might have been expected to have the same effect, but what could have emerged in the aftermath as overpowering fear was simply overpowering sadness.  The lasting effects of attending five funerals of promising young men within the space of four days left me (and those around me) completely exhausted and drained.  Only after weeks of restless nights did it occur to me that the tragedy had had a much larger impact upon me than I really understood.

 

            The appropriate remedy for dealing with personal trauma and grief will undoubtedly vary from one individual to the other.  Personal counseling may work for some.  In my case, I might have been able to deal better with each crisis had I not let each crisis interfere with my regular exercise routine.  I did so largely because I was afraid of “how it would look” to other members of the campus community to see the President in the campus gym walking on the treadmill and pumping iron in the midst of such horrific events.   

 

            In my case, I was also aided tremendously by the presence and support of my wife, Lisa, and our three children.  Lisa was particularly insistent that we not spend time hunkered down in the house but that we find a way to spend some time together and with friends.  Although such occasions inevitably led to conversations about each tragedy, they only forced me to articulate to Lisa and our friends what I was thinking and feeling anyway. 

 

Epilogue

 

            As I continue my seventh year as the President of the University of Wyoming, I can look back with pride about the notable accomplishments of my institution, speak to the value I place upon the wonderfully enriching set of personal and professional relationships developed here, and express continuing excitement and enthusiasm for my work.

 

            I cannot say that I was glad to “have had the opportunity” to preside over the management of the various crises we have faced.  But I can say that, as is the case with many of life’s negative experiences, there have been some positive consequences. Certainly I feel that I’m a stronger leader than I was before and, although others would be in a better position to judge than I, am perceived by my colleagues as such.  I have come to appreciate the importance of the office I hold and its power for community-building at critical times.  And finally, more so than at any time previously, I understand the fragility of life and the power of University communities to deal with its unexpected loss.

 

             

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



[1] Murphy, 2003: p. 36, italics in original.

 

[2] Seymour and Moore, 2000: p. x.

 

[3] Seymour and Moore, 2000, p. 28.

 

[4] Murphy, 2003: p. 36.  Commenting on what most observers would probably say is the most difficult crisis ever to confront an American university or college, Murphy observed that, “[f]or many Americans, the name “Kent State” evokes images of a nation in conflict.  A single crisis decades ago forever defined that institution as a symbol of civil outrage and government run amok.”

 

5 Specific references to stories in the Chronicle of Higher Education dealing with each of these campus cases are available from the author upon request.

 

6 Readers interested in materials related to the University of Wyoming’s response to the murder of Matthew Shepard may wish to consult the University’s resource website:  http://www.uwyo.edu/News/shepard/.  Included in that collection is a video presentation I’ve prepared about the University’s role in the aftermath of the tragedy, including relevant news footage of the time.  Most of the following factual description is drawn from that presentation.  There is no comparable set of materials related to “The Eight,” but a poignant and powerful account can be found in S.L. Price’s, “Crossroad,” in Sports Illustrated magazine (November 26, 2001: pp. 86-99). 

 

7 A decision by the Governor later in the week to lower state flags on the day of Matt’s funeral as a “day of understanding” was widely criticized by veteran’s groups; I received no direct criticism for my action.

 

8 Although this decision ruffled the feathers of some donors who could not understand why we would not readily establish a Matthew Shepard memorial scholarship, it had the benefit of sending a clear message concerning our concern for support of the family.  In the end, the funds collected helped establish the Matthew Shepard Foundation (www.matthewshepard.org/) which, under the guidance of Judy Shepard, has initiated a broad-ranging set of educational and political initiatives dedicated to social justice concerns. 

 

9 I do not presume, in this essay, to attempt to provide any broader assessment of the significance of the murder of Matthew Shepard.   In the months and years that have followed, the traditional media have been followed by magazine writers, playwrites, documentary film makers, and amateur sociologists of all stripes seeking an explanation for the murder and insights into the community in which it occurred.     Nearly all of these folks stopped by the Office of the President at one time or another for a cup of coffee and some conversation.  Some listened well and accurately; some did not.  Although not an account with which I agree in all its particulars, the best overall treatment is Loffreda, 2000.  Beth Loffreda is a member of the Department of English faculty at the University of Wyoming.     

 

10 In this particular aspect of the management of the crisis on campus, I was able to draw upon personal experience.  During my student experience at the University of California, Davis, teach-ins were organized in response to the bombing of Cambodia.  Later in life at Davis, then serving as an administrator under Vice President for Academic Affairs Carol Cartwright and Executive Vice Chancellor Larry Vanderhoef, we organized teach-ins in response to campus reaction to the outbreak of the Gulf War.   Cartwright has been the President of Kent State University since 1990; Vanderhoef has been Chancellor at Davis since 1994. 

 

11 The text of my remarks may be found on the University of Wyoming Matthew Shepard Resource Page at:  http://www.uwyo.edu /News/shepard.  Congressman Barney Frank of Massachusetts saw fit to have those remarks entered into the Congressional Record (vol. 145, no. 46; Tuesday, March 23, 1990:  pp. E520-E521.

 

12 Although technically eligible for the death penalty, both of the men convicted of the murder received life in prison without possibility of parole.  The Shepard family played a significant role in influencing the prosecutor and the judge not to impose the death penalty. 

 

13 Although numerous people privately praised or admonished me for my public endorsement of hate crimes legislation, not one member of my Board of Trustees ever said a word to me concerning the matter.   To their credit, my Board let me and the members of my administration manage the crisis as we thought best.  Later, I was pleased to see the Board recognize the Crisis Management Team with the Board’s highest honor, the Trustees’ Award of Merit.  

 

14 Although Elton John’s contribution of $50,000 to the fund initiated to establish a law school chair was received, we were unable to generate additional interest in the concept to raise the $1.5 million required.  Eventually, with the permission of John’s foundation, we redirected these funds to join an anonymous $1 million gift to underwrite a variety of diversity-related initiatives, including the Matthew Shepard Symposium for Social Justice.  The establishment of the Shepard Symposium is discussed later in this essay.

 

15 In addition to the activities organized by LGBTA, the campus administration arranged for a photographic exhibition of LGBT young people, “The Shared Heart” offered by artist Adam Mastoon, to be displayed in our union art gallery.  The theatre department offered its production of Angels in America.

 

16 The concert appearance by Peter, Paul, and Mary had been arranged in December, 1998, after I had watched a public television presentation of a Christmas concert they had once performed years earlier.  Their rendition of one particular song, “Light One Candle,” struck me as eerily reminiscent of the candlelight vigil we had held at the Newman Center on the Thursday prior to Matt’s death.  At my request, PP&M agreed to perform on the Homecoming weekend, almost a year to the day after Matt’s death.   The performance was underwritten from a combination of privately donated funds, ticket sales, and a contribution by the Matthew Shepard Foundation.

 

17 Under our campus policies, I had the authority to suspend Haskins if his presence would disrupt the educational process or if he was determined to be a danger to the University community.  I felt that the former could be established only with experience.  Although I would not hesitate to suspend a student accused of other kinds of violent offenses, such as murder or rape, I did not judge Haskins to be a danger to the campus.  This was, to be sure, a judgment call.  We certainly could have used Haskins’ suspension to “send a message” about alcohol abuse by students to the larger community.  My view, which I hold to this day, was that we needed to consider each case of student discipline on its own merits and that no one student should be served up to the media and the public to fulfill some larger institutional purpose, such as an expression of our concern about student alcohol use.  In Haskins’ case, knowing that he was probably going to face the better part of twenty years in prison but be released as a convicted felon in his early 30s, he—and the larger society--was going to be far better off having earned his college degree than not.

 

18 Personal contributions accounted for all but $50,000 of this total.  One $50,000 gift to endow a scholarship in memory of The Eight qualified for a state matching grant program that had been approved by the Legislature in March of 2001. 

 

19 My wife, Lisa, who had been stranded in Europe due to the disruption in air traffic in the aftermath of September 11, returned in time to begin attending funerals with me.  During the period of her absence, of course, I appeared at  numerous University functions alone, prompting rumors of our impending divorce.

 

20 Later, as many of the families became involved in efforts to influence the Wyoming legislature to adopt tougher drunk-driving legislation, this symbol emerged again in silver sterling renditions that the families had cast for their own use. 

 

21 We also extended an offer of University custodial assistance for any of the families that might wish it after they had removed their son’s personal effects from their local houses or apartments. 

 

22 In the 2002 legislative session, Wyoming enacted legislation reducing the blood alcohol limit for driving from .10 to .08.  Families of The Eight were actively involved in lobbying legislators, including a press conference held in the Capitol Building that included photographs of the eight boys that we had used in the campus memorial service.  At the request of the families, I appeared at the press conference in support of their efforts. 

 

23 Highway 287 had also, within the recent memory of most Laramie residents, been the site of a serious injury to a member of the Wyoming women’s basketball team and the death of a football player hurrying back to Laramie for spring practice.

 

24 A day or two after the accident, I placed a personal call to the Director of the Wyoming Department of Transportation, urging that he give Highway 287 a high priority for widening and other changes that might make it more forgiving of driver error.  Even in the absence of drivers impaired by alcohol, the road is treacherous and leaves little room for drivers to make any mistakes. 

 

25 I had personally selected one of the parents to speak, largely because she was someone who was closely connected to the University through the Associated Parents of UW and through her mother, a long-time alumna previously recognized for distinguished service to the University.  Recognizing that this might be a matter of some sensitivity with some of the other parents, I invited each of them to communicate their thoughts to her for consideration in her remarks.

 

26 As noted, I had consulted closely with the families about the use of the memorial funds.  Although a couple of the parents had hoped we would use some of the funds to compensate them for funeral expenses, I had rejected that use as inconsistent with the wishes of the donors as best as I could determine.  In addition to the creation of an endowed scholarship, the funds were used for the physical renovations to team rooms and the purchase of items selected by the teams, including a hot tub and a large screen television.  We also used the funds to defray the costs of the memorial garden itself.

 

27 In a volume packed with useful advice for presidents on nearly every conceivable topic related to University administration, former University of Texas President Peter T. Flawn makes only passing reference to the management of student protests, advising that the president should send a dean or vice president out to the front lines! (Flawn, 1990: p. 15).  Steve Sample’s useful small volume on presidential leadership also makes only a small comment about the importance of the president in crisis management, principally to provide a “sense of security” to the campus community (Sample, 2002: pp. 75, 80).  Addressing the challenges to presidents in the 1990s, Clark Kerr  described them as a “mince pie” of issues, only two of which could be considered “crises”—the need to accommodate growing numbers of underrepresented students and some level of student unrest over issues such as the racial and gender composition of the faculty” (Kerr, 1994: 115, 126-128).  None of the other major volumes I consulted (Bloustein, 1972; Plante with Caret, 1990; Birnbaum, 1992; Crowley, 1994; Budig, 2002) mention the challenges of presidential leadership during crisis situations.

 

28 See, for instance, Seymour and Moore, 2000; Ogrizek and Guillery, 1999; Heath, 1998; and Nudell and Antokol, 1988.  The crises typically dealt with in these books involve those with near-term and long-term potential damage to a company’s reputation, including things like airplane crashes, oil spills, product safety problems, labor crises, economic boycotts, institutional scandals, disease outbreaks, and the like.

 

29 See Seymour and Moore, 2000: pp. 190-212; Ogrizek and Guillery, 1999: pp. 88-90.

 

30 Murphy (2003: p. 36), for instance, calls for universities to conduct “a crisis vulnerability assessment” through a comprehensive evaluation of “institutional operations and policies in areas that affect institutional operation,” followed by an “actionable crisis response plan” for identified areas of potential problems.  While having a functioning “emergency response” plan to address major possible threats to the campus community or its physical assets is undoubtedly necessary in the post-September 11 world, few institutions would be able to afford the dedication of staff time and money required to prepare for all possible crises that might arise out of their daily operations.  

31 The academic literature (see, e.g., Ogrizek and Guillery, 1999: pp. 60-64) refers to this, rather distastefully I think, as “victim management.”  But the larger point is still valid in my view. 

 

32 Murphy, 2000: p. 37.

 

33 Another symbolic issue that attached to the Matthew Shepard tragedy was the question of whether there should be a physical marker or memorial of some type that could serve as a permanent reminder of the events of October, 1998, in Laramie.  I demurred, saying as gently as I could that I was not prepared to turn the campus into a cemetery.  Rather, I encouraged those concerned with the creation of a memorial to participate in our campus memorial tree and bench program which would have permitted a brass plaque to mark the planting of a new tree or the placement of a bench in Matt’s memory.  No one came forward to do so and, in the interim, we have established the Matthew Shepard Symposium for Social Justice   Still, on occasion, passersby through Laramie will write to me expressing their concern that we have “done nothing” to memorialize Matt Shepard while we have a memorial garden to mark the death of The Eight.  

 

34 Loffreda, 2000, pp. 99-101.

 

35 The University of Wyoming’s nondiscrimination statements (applicable to admission, employment, and access to programs and services) now all include the same list of ten prohibited bases of discrimination:  race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability, age, veteran status, sexual orientation, and political belief. 

 

36 As Provost at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte in the early 1990s, I dealt with a similar situation involving the protest by a fundamentalist religious group to a piece of art displayed in our senior art show.  By inviting the group’s leader to bring his protest on to campus, we were able to allow him to exercise his First Amendment rights and to simultaneously showcase the importance of those same rights to the student artist. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

References

 

            Birnbaum, Robert.  1992.  How Academic Leadership Works:  Understanding Success and Failure in the College Presidency.  San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass, 1992.

 

            Bloustein, Edward J.  1972.  The University and the Counterculture:  Inaugural and Other Addresses by Edward J. Bloustein.  New Brunswick, NJ:  Rutgers University Press.

 

            Budig, Gene A.  2002.  A Game of Uncommon Skill.  Westport, CT:  The American Council on Education, The Oryx Press, and the College Board, 2002.

 

            Crowley, Joseph N. 1994.  No Equal in the World:  An Interpretation of the Academic Presidency.  Reno:  University of Nevada Press.

 

            Flawn, Peter T.  1990.  A Primer for University Presidents:  Managing the Modern University.  Austin:  University of Texas Press.

 

Heath, Robert.  1998.  Crisis Management for Managers and Executives.  London:  Financial Times Management.  

 

Kerr, Clark.  1994.  Troubled Times for American Higher Education:  The 1990s and Beyond.  New York:  State University of New York Press.

 

Loffreda, Beth.  2000.  Losing Matt Shepard:  Life and Politics in the Aftermath of Anti-Gay Murder.  New York:  Columbia University Press.

 

Murphy, Sean K. 2003.  “Crisis Management Demystified:  Here’s how to prevent a crisis from ruining your institution’s reputation.”  University Business (February):  36-37. 

 

Nudell, Mayer and Norman Antokol.  1988.  The Handbook for Effective Emergency and Crisis Management.  Lexington, Mass.:  Lexington Books, D.C. Heath and Company. 

 

Ogrizek, Michel and Jean Michel Guillery. 1999.  Communicating in Crisis:  A Theoretical and Practical Guide to Crisis Management.  New York:  Aldine de Gruyter.

 

Plant, Patricia R. with Robert L. Caret.  1990.  Myths and Realities of Academic Administration.  New York:  American Council on Education, MacMillan Publishing. 

 

Sample, Steven B.  2002.  The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership.  San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass.

 

Seymour, Mike and Simon Moore. 2000. Effective Crisis Management:  Worldwide Principles and Practice.  London and New York:  Cassell.