Presidential Leadership in Time of Crisis
Philip L. Dubois
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.”
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
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
· 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” 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. In the worst possible case, the crisis comes to be embedded in the public consciousness as the defining image of the institution.
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
An intentionally-set residence hall fire at
The deaths in January, 2001 of two basketball
players and six others affiliated with the
· 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).
Dismissal of a controversial Division I-A
basketball coach (
· 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 (
· 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.
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
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).
fall 1998, Jim Hurst had been vice president for student affairs at the
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
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.
Friday afternoon, I had arranged join the
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
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.
Sunday, Matt’s condition was being reported as grave; a candlelight vigil
organized by the
that time, however, the vigil was old news; Matt Shepard had died Monday
morning at approximately ,
MST. A 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
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
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
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
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
coverage only heightened as the day approached for the Shepard family funeral
to be held in
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
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
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
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.
community and the campus were spared a trial that spring, as
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
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.
most Americans, I spent the weekend glued to my television, with occasional
attempts to reach my wife, Lisa, who was stranded in
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.”
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
including most prominently the father of the driver of the Jeep (and a resident
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
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
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.
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
that said, the crises faced by the
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
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
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 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.
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
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
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:
told me he saw the (Elton John) concert as, at best, a symbolic gesture that
gave straight residents of
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
I continue my seventh year as the President of the
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.
 Murphy, 2003: p. 36, italics in original.
 Seymour and Moore, 2000: p. x.
 Seymour and Moore, 2000, p. 28.
 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
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
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
11 The text of my remarks may be found on the
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
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
20 Later, as many of the families became
involved in efforts to influence the
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,
23 Highway 287 had also, within the recent
memory of most
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
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.
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
34 Loffreda, 2000, pp. 99-101.
36 As Provost at the
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