There are numerous crises that occur within university and college communities that require an immediate institutional response. Some of these events are associated with human behavior: alcohol and drug overdoses, bomb threats, celebratory riots, civil unrest, infectious disease outbreaks, suicides, murders, vehicular crashes, train derailments, and comparable tragedies both on- and off-campus. Other catastrophes may be categorized as environmental disasters: chemical threats, earthquakes, explosions, fires, floods, hurricanes, tornados, and other natural events that threaten the campus, community, and region. When a disaster occurs within a campus community, the emergency response does not differ greatly from the response in the larger communities in which they exist. Nevertheless, higher education communities are held to an elevated standard of expectations whenever students are involved within the presumed safe campus boundaries. The following guidelines form the basis for addressing any campus disaster and are recommended for inclusion in the university’s crisis response and recovery plan.
Crisis Response and Recovery Plan
The most important first step is to obtain and review the existing crisis response and recovery plan. Even if the document has not been updated recently, the existing management plan becomes the blueprint serving as the basis for action. The institution will have some measure of liability protection, as it will provide structure to organize the current situation and prevent an inappropriate response.
The crisis plan should be suitable for the particular campus for which it is designed, provide a skeleton of procedures and policies to begin the emergency response, be flexible enough to respond to a variety of unique situations, and present enough details to be directive. University administrators should determine if the existing plan complements or supplements other campus policies, procedures, and directives such as those found in the operating manuals. The plan also should include sample meeting agendas and contingent systems to more completely address expanded needs for the current situation if the first response fails.
After the crisis response and recovery plan is developed or updated, the planning team should promulgate the plan on campus to assure that it has been accepted and formally signed by all university administrators who will perform a critical role in any emergency response. These individuals typically include the campus chancellor, system president, campus police, student affairs unit heads, academic deans, public affairs personnel, athletic director, and directors of financial and information technology services, among others.
The next step is to promote the crisis response and recovery plan within the broader campus community. Because key personnel in leadership positions change frequently, the plan should be the focus of at least one high-level meeting among top administrators every year. Auxiliary personnel should be required to attend an annual training meeting appropriate for their roles. The goal is to assure that departmental administrators and unit heads are sufficiently knowledgeable so that they can implement the plan during a time of peril and response.
Finally, make certain that the necessary information technology databases are systematized, updated, backed up, and accessible. Assure that an alternative power generation source is able to respond in an electrical power loss. The inventory should include contact information for critical response personnel, the accessibility of emergency supplies, the number of beds available in the residential housing inventory, the capacity of the dining hall facilities, availability of warehouse space, and how to solicit additional community support personnel as necessary.
Consequently, when a campus crisis occurs, administrators should immediately locate the crisis response and recovery plan and analyze the contents to ascertain what elements of the plan must be applied to the immediate situation. Determine if specific roles have been documented for all relevant units and communicate them to the department heads immediately. The human resource office also should provide an administrative briefing on what personnel policies apply during the particular emergency. Relevant administrators should continue to communicate through follow-up meetings and electronic communications as necessary throughout the process.
A series of communication decisions must be made in advance of an impending campus crisis identifying the network of personnel who should be involved in communications decision-making. The lack of a communication plan, hasty communication, and incoherent communication networks lead to misinformation that can complicate response efforts. Single-source coverage should be the responsibility of the highest level of administration of the university and those whose job qualifications and assignments are related to campus communications. It is critical to identify the chief communication coordinator who has the necessary skills to be responsible for disseminating emergency information to the media. Typically, the president or chancellor of the university is recognized as the immediate spokesperson who can reassure faculty, staff, students, parents, and the general public as to the appropriate interpretation of an impending crisis.
Though decisions will be made at all levels of the chain of command, communications control makes clear who is responsible for what kinds of decisions and who will communicate the information to whom. These chains of communication typically involve administrators and unit heads within the institution’s existing internal communication network, including key leaders within the student affairs division such as the chief student affairs officer, dean of students, housing and student health directors, student media personnel, and various department heads within individual units.
Campuses also are able to serve as advanced communication hubs given the availability of a variety of electronic networks. Campus-based media not only serve the needs of students, but are equally as effective in reaching the greater community. In addition to electronic media sources such as instant cell phone notices, student media services can perform an important role through campus-managed radio, TV station, and a daily or Web-based student newspaper. These outlets can be helpful in releasing accurate first-hand accounts of events as they unfold and provide the opportunity to contain the endless rumors that circulate within a community responding to a crisis. Given that normal modes of communications may not be available due to lack of electrical power, make advance preparations for critical public announcements and printed news releases.
During a large-scale community crisis, there is an immediate need for physical facilities large enough to accommodate centralized emergency response teams, information centers, and displaced people seeking shelter. There also might be a need to provide venues large enough to host memorial services and other related events. Above all other resources in most communities, universities and colleges have the requisite number of large-scale facilities and gathering spaces to accommodate masses of people and provide necessary crisis response and management. Facilities include classrooms, buildings, recreational centers, student unions, theatres, and athletic facilities that routinely accommodate significant events and are staffed by dedicated personnel who are trained to manage large occasions and human activities. Most campuses also provide residential and dining facilities with back-up power sources that can be converted to emergency shelters and food distribution centers for the greater community as needed.
Campuses also can provide specialized human resources that are readily accessible including medical professionals, mental health counselors, spiritual leaders, police, risk- management officers, and contracted personnel. The knowledgeable and experienced professionals have been trained to evaluate and manage the elements of a wide variety of crisis situations and frequently serve as first responders. During a medical emergency, related personnel efficiently and accurately will assess the medical and psychological health needs of the campus community and follow with immediate education. Student affairs professionals are the front-line officials who will be asked to lead many of these crisis response efforts because the facilities, personnel, and resources often are under their direct supervision. The campus community also includes a highly sophisticated network of employees among the faculty, staff, and students who are able to perform a variety of support roles in their environment. Further, a reserve of volunteers, alumni, and community supporters can be solicited quickly to provide the necessary human assistance if the crisis calls for it.
Crisis Response Meetings
No crisis management plan can replace scheduled face-to-face meetings among the key leadership professionals during a crisis. The primary purpose of these meetings is to assemble top administrators and crisis management experts to obtain critical information, make decisions efficiently, share responsibilities, prioritize duties, determine schedules, and assign follow-up directives. These meetings demonstrate to the public that the critical leaders are addressing and managing an effective response to the crisis. Further, they provide leaders with an opportunity for morale building and network support.
A response that is vetted among a larger group improves the quality of decision making. There is an optimal meeting size that reflects the level of involvement of the various campus constituencies. Meetings should include personnel from a variety of critical units within the organizational structure, including student affairs personnel at the health center, residential living, student media, student union, and recreational center. These units are staffed with knowledgeable professionals who are comfortable working with college students and their parents and can communicate the outcome of any campus decision. Further, most student affairs personnel have received training through professional development activities and can be counted on to respond appropriately during a time of crisis.
The frequency of the meetings will be dictated by the level of the crisis. Addressing a campus hurricane, tornado, or flood may require many more meetings than a campus shooting or a student suicide. The timing for these meetings should be scheduled so that the intervening time can be used to manage the crisis, coordinate the communications, and respond to questions and rumors. Further, these meetings should be scheduled in a location separated from external interruptions and annoying distractions.
Human Resource Management
The personal plans and needs of selected unit leaders must become secondary during a campus-based crisis in which skilled professionals are expected to provide essential crisis assistance. Many existing policies frequently require selected administrators to stay on the campus during an emergency, and their job descriptions are written to cover such eventualities. The time demands of campus professionals will expand exponentially according to the scale and scope of the emergency and may require 100 percent effort during an operation that can continue for days, weeks, and even months. Because individual personnel cannot be expected to work 24 hours a day, a rotation system is necessary to provide ongoing critical care.
On occasion, there are some within the campus community, possibly even on the response team, who decide to take crisis response matters into their own hands. Invariability, these so-called “lone rangers” have honorable intentions and may perceive that a critical problem is not being addressed. Though individual initiative and leadership are encouraged during times of crisis, independent actions may be counterproductive. An autonomous actor may commit multiple errors in governance, policy, and procedures that will cause emotional and financial stress to the emergency response efforts. These individuals also may desire to credit themselves with action and may be susceptible to the media trying to resolve unsubstantiated rumors. Because their actions may encourage others to respond in a similar fashion, intervention by a more senior administrator may be necessary.
Many individuals want to be helpful and are eager to get involved in a crisis, but it is imperative that volunteers be organized to be efficient within the campus structure. Most administrative units do not have time to organize masses of individuals or the necessary resources to provide appropriate supervision of willing volunteers. Thus, the emergency plan should include arrangements for designating volunteer leadership, particularly among those who work closely with students, alums, faculty, and staff. These kinds of decisions should be vetted well in advance of any crisis and take into consideration the related liability issues that arise when volunteers assume first responder roles. Nevertheless, campus volunteers should not be underestimated, though they need direction, and the emergency response plan should allow for their organization.
Higher education institutions are unique entities within any community and cannot continue to operate in a state of high alert and response mode for long periods of time. When it becomes obvious that most of the immediate emergency problems have been resolved, it is time to resume the usual institutional business. As an ideal plan for restarting business following a crisis does not exist, some pressing questions should be answered before the timing is finalized. Does the campus police department consider the campus to be safe enough for a return to business as usual? Are critical systems operating? Have off-campus emergency responders been provided with alternative housing, food, and staging areas? Has a timeline been established to address specific concerns? Have students, faculty, and staff received the proper information and procedures for restarting customary campus life?
If campus classes have been canceled, the academic provost and chancellor can simply declare the date when classes will be re-established. Typically, faculty and students will take matters into their own hands and will resume classes when the date is announced. In general, it is important to do so because many faculty, staff, and students are anxious to return to ordinary routines and, in a matter of a few days, normalcy typically will return to campus.
There are no low-cost disasters in higher education communities, and there seldom is forewarning about the impending budgetary doom. As higher education budgets typically are unyielding, specific financial accounts seldom exist to charge the extraordinary costs associated with a crisis response and recovery. Those costs rapidly escalate to cover overtime pay, provide first responder relief, house and feed external volunteers, purchase supplies and emergency equipment, recover damaged internal management systems, and many others. The reality is that there is an unknown fiscal future associated with any emergency event on campus.
Few predictive models exist for anticipating costs for specific campus emergencies. Moreover, institutions seldom have policies for budgeting emergency funds or guidance as to how much an individual unit should hold in reserves for such an event. For example, nobody knows beforehand the fiscal demands associated with housing relief workers in the campus residence halls, or the ultimate costs of required medical supplies and pharmaceuticals at the student health center, or the price tag for weeks of relief services provided in recreational or athletic facilities. Advance planning, however, can identify which general areas will require financial assistance if a disaster strikes.
During a natural disaster, the federal government often is able to provide some relief through various emergency systems, typically on a reimbursement basis at a much later date. Risk management and insurance programs can provide some financial aid, though approval may be slow and the funds may not be received before the fiscal year ends. Also, great generosity often follows a crisis, and response agencies such as the Red Cross and private charities are usually helpful in providing short-term assistance. Thus, it is critical for the campus emergency plan to identify contingency financial systems to cover the typical budget categories within various units based on history and relative risk that the campus is likely to face similar emergencies in the future.
Executing the Plan
There is an anecdote that has circulated for nearly a decade concerning a remarkable response by one survivor of the New York City Twin Towers 9-11 tragedy. Apparently, when the man first became aware of an explosion in the building, he immediately put on a pair of running shoes, grabbed a stored bottle of water and a flashlight from his desk drawer, and ran for the floor exit with a map of the building in hand. He descended the North Tower exit stairs, escaped the building, and ran away from the ensuing mayhem without looking back.
His survival story underscores that he had prepared his reaction to an anticipated crisis and escaped from harm’s way, which counters human intuition in an emergency to first gather with other people to analyze what is happening and then formulate a plan of action. The moral of this anecdote is that the greater campus community must take the necessary time to consider what possible disasters or crises might occur, engage in advanced planning for such emergencies, and then follow a predetermined response and recovery plan with appropriate adaptations in a given situation.
F. Neil Mathews, Ph.D., has been a successful university professor, administrator, researcher, and public advocate for higher education over three decades. As an administrator at Louisiana State University, he provided leadership during campus crises involving hurricanes, serial murders and campus shootings, student suicides, alcohol and drug overdoses and deaths, facility fires, campus medical emergencies, and associated memorial services.