University and college leaders across the United States find themselves increasingly caught in the crosshairs of criticism – and, in some instances, out of a job – as influential alumnae, critics, legislators slam campus culture and seek wholesale reform to curricula. And as recent coverage of ongoing conflict at The University of Pennsylvania underscores (even after the ouster of its President), these are issues that remain timely and acute.
The reflexive response would be to write off the upheaval on campuses as simply the latest polarization of the ideological battlefields: DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion), critical race theory, “safe spaces,” and trigger warnings. Indeed, the United States is no stranger to such culture wars: nearly 75 years have passed since William F. Buckley, forerunner of modern-day conservatism, decried Yale faculty’s advanced secularism and collectivism at the expense of the principles of Christianity, individualism, and free market economics in God and Man at Yale: The Superstitions of 'Academic Freedom'.
In other words, polarized debate on college campuses is not a novel concept.
What is new, however, is that campus battles have become more extreme, more frequent, and more viral. Another difference: they are being waged not by defiant and earnest students, but by regulators, politicians, and wealthy alumnae. These groups advance their cause through adroit exploitation of media (traditional and social) and full use of the levers of governmental oversight. This was abundantly clear during the December 2023 congressional hearings on campus antisemitism, wherein key academic leaders’ emphasis on technical, nuanced discourse was met with resounding criticism.
The communications implications stemming from this dynamic are complex. But there is a roadmap for university boards and directors – one that corporate boards tasked with defending against activist shareholder attacks have embraced by necessity over the past decades. The general playbook in these situations includes proactive activist defense preparation overseen by a board that looks at policies, principles, stakeholder relations, and communications through the activist lens to put in place a strategic plan to address vulnerabilities and capitalize on strengths.
Following this roadmap, university boards can consider the following three elements to incorporate into their “defensive preparedness”:
Becoming your own “activist"
- Recognize your vulnerabilities – assess your core academic offerings relative to peers, strengths, weaknesses
- Scrutinize the “portfolio” of programs that are non-core to academics
- Make necessary strategic, operational, and governance changes that result from that evaluation
Assessing perceptions of your different stakeholders
- Understand potential reputational vulnerabilities and critics
- Audit relationships/partnerships and know where risk lies
Refining narrative and honing “value” thesis
- Sharpen core messages and substantiate how the institution’s core mission translates into a valuable experience for students
- Anticipate the next crisis and prepare
Until recently, such initiatives may have seemed irrelevant to college leaders. But the ongoing uproar on campuses reminds us that being an effective administrator, attentive fundraiser, and thoughtful academic is not enough. Students and, increasingly, alumni, want transparency from trustees and a public-facing leader who can make difficult and principled choices and communicate them robustly.
Studied neutrality is out; engagement and owning the debate are in.
It's time for boards at colleges and universities to take a page from their corporate counterparts, given the open-ended activism aimed at them. The terms of engagement have changed, the stakes are higher – and their planning, preparedness, and communications must follow suit.