What institutional leaders need to know about responding to campus flashpoints

Across the last year, campus controversies related to diversity and inclusion, free speech, sexual misconduct, and more continue to dominate the news. To learn more about how institutional leaders can respond to and prepare for campus climate flashpoints, EAB’s Academic Affairs team sat down with one of our colleagues, Murphy Donohue, whose research focuses on these very issues.

Jahanara Saeed (JS): There are a lot of words and phrases used to describe campus controversies like bias incidents and climate flashpoints. Could you help us define some of these terms and explain why institutional leaders need to pay attention to these incidents?

Murphy Donohue (MD): Climate flashpoints are typically campus incidents related to diversity and inclusion, free speech, and sexual misconduct. They cause disturbances in the broader community or media and include heightened levels of activism, media and public scrutiny, and reputational damage. Campus flashpoints are all the things we see in the news today, spanning a wide range of issues from a sexual misconduct investigation to controversy over an invited campus speaker.

Flashpoints are particularly important for institutional leaders because once they ignite they have both short- and long-term repercussions. In the short term, institutional leaders must contend with increased activism, imperfect information, and heightened media coverage. In the long term, these incidents can have lasting impacts on students’ experiences, the institution’s reputation, and even future enrollment. The stakes are clearly very high!

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JS: From reading the news it seems like there are a lot of moving pieces that institutional leaders must keep in mind when responding to campus flashpoints. In your research, what are some of the common roadblocks institutions face when addressing such incidents?

MD: Institutional leaders face many hurdles in flashpoint response, one in particular that comes to mind is how they monitor and track information about potential flashpoints. In our research we found that many stakeholders across campus learned about risky scenarios before they turned into flashpoints but didn’t know how to get that information to the right people. This lack of information sharing leaves institutions at a disadvantage because it limits opportunities for proactive planning and early risk mitigation.

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JS: I can see how these hurdles can have some big downstream consequences. What do you recommend institutional leaders do to avoid that?

MD: An important way to avoid this problem is creating early and consistent risk elevation mechanisms for faculty, staff, and administrators to flag potential flashpoints before they emerge. One way institutions have done this is by conducting regular, proactive risk briefings to ensure that senior leadership is aware of any potential climate-related issues. An additional benefit of these briefings is that they allow for more intentional collaboration between key institutional stakeholders when it comes to developing a response to a potential incident.

Similarly, it is also important to ensure that institutions have developed processes to manage common risks. An increasingly common flashpoint occurs when potentially controversial speakers or events happen on campus. Responding to such incidents requires a lot of cross-campus collaboration and one way to get ahead of these potential flashpoints is by developing a response template. These templates allow frontline staff to flag potentially controversial events and create a shared document that outlines key information about the event and how the institution will respond. They also enable institutions to catch potential flashpoints early, allowing senior leaders to streamline preparation and response efforts.

JS: I know that one of the main issues that comes up in discussions around campus flashpoints is free speech. President Trump recently issued an executive order mandating that colleges uphold free speech and foster an environment that promotes active debate or potentially lose federal research funds. How do you think this executive order will impact activism on campus?

MD: I think the executive order points to increasing and continued attention on campus free speech. Regardless of their stated policies and actions to protect free speech, colleges and universities will face continuing public pressure to protect and promote opportunities for free expression, especially around controversial issues. This can create an environment conducive to campus activism, which isn’t a bad thing—as long as institutions are ready to respond to brewing flashpoints.

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