III. Building Blocks and Positioning

Presidential Leadership and Crises

Mr. Peter McPherson and Dr. Rebecca J. Menghini

One needs only look at the headlines in the Chronicle of Higher Education or any mainstream media outlet, really, to read of a new crisis somewhere in higher education. For leading institutions, the question probably is not if, but when, a crisis of some kind will strike. And although that fact can be daunting, we posit that with some intentional action and preparation, leaders can be ready in important ways for when that day comes.

It is hard to say whether there are more crises today or whether social media and twenty-four-hour news cycles now bring them all to the forefront for everyone to see. What is true, though, is that many universities have grown bigger and more complex due to flourishing research and health care enterprises, sophisticated IT structures and security programs, and robust sports programs. Added size and complexity have increased the risk of crises.

University crises can be defined in any number of ways and come in many forms. Some are externally driven, and others come from within. They often threaten the well-being of people, the functioning of facilities and services, and the reputation of the university.

It is not news that crises are hard. But it may be new to some that leaders can do much to prepare for crises. Crises must not be seen as one-offs for which no preparation is possible.

In short, we believe that presidents before a crisis can position themselves to lead in a crisis with at least some strength. That positioning includes growing relationships and trust, building a strong core leadership team, assessing risks, and planning as practical for crises when they do come.

A president should embrace and work to advance the core values of the institution. That is a foundational strength in leading in a crisis. That and many of the other actions a president should do to otherwise have a successful presidency are also the very same actions presidents should do to prepare for a crisis. We expand on these actions below.

Building Relationships and Establishing Trust

Leaders should make a conscious effort to develop relationships and trust with stakeholders and the public, including when there are differences of opinion. Research shows the actions of presidents in a crisis may matter less than their perceived trustworthiness (Menghini 2014). Building trust can take many forms, but it almost always involves broad engagement and time spent with stakeholders, sharing as much information as is practical and legal, listening and being open to different views, and having some visibility at all levels of the university and to the public. Stakeholder relationships can provide alternative views, technical advice, functional capacity, and support, in addition to creating community and shared experience. Other university leaders share roles with stakeholders, but presidents must be involved and visible and not overly delegate those relationships.

The president’s relationship with the board is critical and even more so in a crisis when individual board members may feel a need to comment publicly or to “do something.” A strong relationship can be challenging to build and maintain, and we regularly see examples where the relationship does not work. In principle, the president should be the CEO who runs the university and appropriately informs, consults, and seeks or receives direction on major issues from the board. In other words, the board in principle should only be deeply involved in the most major decisions and should provide general oversight. These divisions of responsibility can be challenging for everyone. “Major” is subject to definition, and some board members slip into thinking their job is managing. The best board members have often reported to a board themselves and have experienced the differences between management and board oversight. Such board members can often help with other board members.

There are lots of nuances to all this. It helps to have expectations as to when the president will bring something to the chair of the board instead of the full board. A president needs to understand individual board members’ special interests and constituencies. The board’s role in grievances and litigation is often a matter that needs to be considered.

Overall, the goal is to minimize surprises and avoid problems with authority or processes in a way that allows all parties to do their jobs effectively. In some cases, these understandings between the board and president are best accomplished by employing an outside consultant to lead direct and honest conversations. In any case, successful presidents feel strongly that a president needs to work out a board relationship of mutual expectations and trust, even though it may take time and certainly ongoing attention.

An instructive case of board relationships is the relationship Brit Kirwan, then chancellor of the University of Maryland System, had with his board. Brit developed a close working relationship with the chair of the board and scheduled check-in calls with all board members between each board meeting. He worked hard to have “no surprises.” Once a year, the board had a retreat in which the roles of the board and chancellor were reviewed. This relationship with the board was important many times. For example, Brit had the needed board support on a very contentious matter. He wanted to continue certain scholarships for Black students, and in related litigation decided to lay out the continuing impact of historical discrimination. Some people feared that this would discourage Black applications especially if the case was lost. In the end, the university did lose in court, but the university’s public acknowledgment of the problems and commitment to change brought an increase in Black applications.

Faculty, Staff, and Students

The president’s relationship with the faculty is especially important, and, of course, some differences of view should be expected. Presidents must spend time engaging and understanding the concerns of their faculty and find meaningful ways to demonstrate support. Presidents need to develop relationships with some faculty opinion leaders with whom they can have candid conversations.

When Becci Menghini was at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, several chancellors for whom she worked had such faculty contacts—some formal, such as assemblies of national academies members or faculty advisory committees, and others far more informal that develop over time. The relationships paid off many times.

It is also important to engage with staff because they are key to keeping the university running and can often be important sources of information and support. When Peter McPherson was president at Michigan State, he, the provost, and the vice president for administration and finance had dinner with the campus union presidents every quarter. It was agreed that labor contract issues were not to be discussed, so the dinners were about the campus and university challenges. Those conversations made a real difference, for example, when the unions and the university worked together to contain exploding health care costs.

Although students often don’t understand what a university president does, or even who they are, students are, of course, at the core of why universities exist. Presidents are well served to regularly connect with student leaders and meet with and be visible to student groups and the larger student body. It usually pays off to meet with the student newspaper editorial board and to ensure that the president and staff are available to their reporters. Most presidents find that student contact is invigorating— “I am reminded why I am here”—and almost always presidents learn from these engagements. No doubt, some credibility with students is a big plus in a crisis.

External Stakeholders

Beyond the campus, there are many stakeholders with whom presidents and their teams should build relationships and trust. Connecting with these groups often requires more deliberate scheduling and agenda setting.

Presidents should know their local, state, and federal elected officials and be in touch with them about institutional priorities and the ways the university can serve those officials’ constituents. These relationships can often be quite warm, despite some disagreements. Finding ways to navigate across political lines with these elected leaders, not just when the university needs help, is important and will pay dividends when a crisis strikes.

Leaders are wise to build relationships with alumni, local communities, business, labor, local law enforcement, and others. This paid off, for example, when Peter McPherson was at Michigan State. His agriculture dean, the college, and he had a strong relationship with Michigan agriculture groups. The Michigan governor proposed a 50 percent cut in state funding for the university’s agriculture research and Extension. The Farm Bureau and others aggressively lobbied with the university to prevent any cuts and for a time made these budget items the new “hot rails” that could not be touched in the legislature.

Also, community relationships can make or break a presidency. The impact of a campus extends well beyond its physical boundaries. The importance of work with the community is exemplified by the efforts of Roy Wilson, president of Wayne State. For years, Roy worked with community groups including the Black and Hispanic communities, business, and labor. Wayne State’s publicly elected board became evenly divided on Roy’s presidency for reasons that to many seemed unreasonable. The community’s strong support of Roy was key to his survival as president and to his very effective presidency.

The media is a central way to communicate and gain credibility with stakeholders and the public. We sometimes forget that the media is one of the best ways to communicate to the campus, better even, sometimes, than the president’s office itself. Establishing relationships with local, regional, and national media, including the informal influencers on social media, is helpful to broadly push out a singular university message—most certainly in quiet times and even more so in turbulent ones. Leaders should also make time to have a personal presence on social media, even if that work is staff supported.

In summary, external stakeholders strengthen a university in good times; in crisis, their value can be enormous and provide technical expertise, functional capacity, and different perspectives.

The Core Leadership Team

One of the most important things a president can do to be successful is to assemble a strong leadership team, most of whom will have line leadership responsibilities, for example, the provost, heads of student affairs, and administration. Leadership teams extend the reach of the president, particularly when they bring together different organizational perspectives, backgrounds, and skill sets. Presidents should build and lead their senior teams to become working and problem-solving teams. The president needs to build a team culture that welcomes healthy debate and honest disagreements with the president. This will lead to better outcomes in good times and bad.

An example of the contributions of a strong team was Peter McPherson’s team at Michigan State University when two students died from very contagious meningitis. The US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) advised that vaccination campaigns should not be done until three people had died. Peter said he did “not have any volunteers.” He decided, after intense discussion and careful planning with his core team (including the university physician), to provide vaccinations to the entire campus. The campus pulled together to deliver the vaccinations, and the vaccinations moved along so quickly that the university almost ran out of vaccines before the scheduled resupply. US Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, with whom Peter had worked, was able to arrange for the US Department of Defense to fly in additional vaccinations a few hours after Peter called the senator. The morale on campus moved quickly from fear to relief. Peter knows the core team was fundamental to the success of the vaccination effort.

Making Plans for the Unexpected

A president and the university should have a systematic and regular way to identify possible risks and make plans accordingly. Note that the board will probably have an audit committee that often includes risk assessment in its responsibilities. In any case, university administration needs to be deeply involved, both with those efforts and their own. There may be some more likely risks to be considered, such as cyber ransom, “social media storms,” as well as Title IX and DEI issues, but the landscape is ever-changing.

Identifying risks should produce hypothetical fact patterns that can be the basis of emergency operation and communication plans. Those in turn can be the basis for “desktop exercises” and often artificial simulations. The exercises and simulations inevitably identify needed refinements in the plans. The president needs to be involved in all of this to understand and for all others to take it seriously. Several successful presidents we spoke with recommended these desktop and simulation exercises. For example, Howard Gillman, chancellor at the University of California, Irvine, reports that he has a number of these each year.

Some examples of what emergency operation plans might include putting in place power and technology backups. Also, the plan should be clear in writing who has what responsibility without approval from others and who are the substitute decision-makers if needed in, for example, shootings or natural disasters.

Significant research also supports the establishment of crises communication plans. (Jacobsen 2010; Lerbinger 1997). Such plans must build on what the university should already be doing. A crisis communication plan is not something all new and separate.

The changing media landscape and the growth of social media have altered how this particular task is best accomplished. Note that print and television no longer cover local and state news as they once did. Plans might consider who should be in the room to help make decisions about communication and about what to say (or not), what tools and outlets the university will use to communicate in a crisis, and how institutional messaging will be placed in today’s very fluid and crowded media landscape. These plans should consider who might serve as institutional spokespeople, the role the president should play in communication (probably a major one), and the means the campus will use to distribute shared talking points to others.

Let’s note here that a president should regularly deal directly with their head of public affairs. That person usually has a somewhat different perspective from that of others in the senior team. Peter McPherson has always had the public affairs person report directly to him in the large organizations he has run, and developed a close confidential relationship with the person.

Of course, presidents and their universities will want to learn from their own and others’ crisis experiences.

An example of learning is how campuses are dealing with “active shooters.” Campuses have had too many “active shooters” over the years, and campuses have learned from the experience of others. Recently a shooter at Michigan State murdered several students. The police were on location within minutes; the campus was locked down; and several local police departments responded immediately as part of an overall plan. The deaths were terrible, but the response was very strong. In the last few years, the campus had made plans and practiced for this situation and several other types of crises.

What to Do When a Crisis Does Come

In talking with successful presidents, we are told again and again that a president needs to put people first, take responsibility including for mistakes that may have been made, act consistent with the values of the institution, and make timely decisions. We would add that presidents are often the principal definers of the problems and possible solutions in a crisis, and their actions, behaviors, and words in crisis can signal to others that the situation is being managed.

The first steps in a crisis are likely to be for the president to quickly assess the situation with the core leadership team and probably others pertinent to the situation, to communicate with the board, and to issue an initial public statement.

The president will want to communicate with the board to tell them that the president recognizes the seriousness of the problem, what is known and what is not known, that work is underway to find out all the facts, that a brief public statement will be issued, and that the president will be back to the board very soon. Generally, the president will want to ask the board to direct press inquiries to the president so that the university can speak with one voice. Board members will no doubt receive calls, and being on the same page with the campus is invaluable.

As indicated, the leadership team will be immediately involved. That team will probably be expanded or focused for the emergency, for example, security personnel, health officials, and so on. The team will need to include those the president trusts with voices who will ask the hard questions and challenge the group to do its best work. This team may help leadership avoid oversimplifying the situation or making decisions that require more facts or expertise. The team will help the president assess the situation, help drive the response, make some calls to key stakeholders, and consider the communications plans. Ultimately, the team will help shape the solution to the problem(s) causing the crisis.

As indicated above, the university will almost always need to issue an early public statement and then keep communicating. For instance, the University of California, Santa Cruz, had a wildfire that came right up to the campus before the wind changed course, but the smoke was there for days. Chancellor Cynthia Larive says that in crises like that one, you cannot communicate enough to the campus and beyond. She also noted the importance of such communications being empathetic and framed in human, as opposed to bureaucratic, terms.

One of the most important parts of navigating crises is ensuring that all stakeholders, whether they are internal or external, hear a singular message from the university, and that the message rises to the top in the midst of a chaotic news cycle. It is important in the heat of the moment for leaders not to damage the trust they have earned, but instead, be visible and to be honest about what they know and don’t know, show awareness of the threats to the university’s people and its reputation, and address the facts as they can, even if the facts are damaging to the leader or the university. Sometimes addressing the fact is hard to do, not necessarily because of reluctance on the president’s part, but because real information is hard to secure. We’re reminded that US Secretary of State George Shultz, for whom Peter McPherson once worked, often said to his team, “Never trust the first intelligence. It is usually incomplete or wrong.”

But how to establish the facts? Be sure you have the pertinent expertise involved, and that there is a demanding process in finding the facts and making judgments. Sometimes the facts can only be established—especially to the satisfaction of all parties—by a formal investigation. The question may be whether this should be an inside or outside party that does the investigation. It will probably be faster and cheaper if inside, but an insider investigation may not have the same credibility. If there is an investigation, many will want the written report released. Sometimes, the university’s lawyers will argue against the release of a written report, but there can be a high credibility cost to not releasing the written report.

When Becci Menghini was at UW–Madison, a report went public of a senior athletic official allegedly engaging in sexual misconduct with a student. The story rapidly grew legs and was being reported nationally. While the university had procedures for investigating gender-based violence, the public nature of the case required fast action. Chancellor David Ward sought the outside expertise of a former federal judge, who was asked to investigate the matter in accordance with university procedures. The sourcing of an external investigator, and a public statement about that action, reassured both those inside the university and external stakeholders that feared that an athletics case might be pushed under the rug.

Ongoing communications should show awareness of the harm done and the threats to the university and people, be transparent, carefully thought through, and be consistent. A major question may be when the president steps in saying that the president or the university made mistakes. A general rule is the sooner the better, recognizing that the lawyers will frequently advise limiting such statements.

In this essay, we have placed a great deal of importance on building relationships of trust before a crisis occurs. That is certainly right, but sometimes those relationships are weak or do not exist when a crisis occurs. Yet generally, there is no substitute for the president to aggressively reach out with full transparency for advice and help.

For example, shortly after Mark Keenum, president of Mississippi State, took office, the governor made a substantial cut in the university’s annual budget. It was midyear, so the full reduction had to be painfully found from the budget for the remaining months of the year. Mark asked the chair of the faculty senate to chair a committee to make recommendations. He provided the full budget detail to the committee and asked them to make recommendations. A lot of hard decisions were recommended and then made with substantial support on the campus.

Of course, a crisis requires a plan to deal with the problem now and going forward. That will take help from the leadership team, probably experts, and from the campus.

Let’s comment on when it has not worked for a president. Certainly, some of these situations were beyond the control of the presidents, for example, a dysfunctional and overly involved board. Other factors have contributed such as when the president did not act rapidly enough or with enough transparency, had too many fractured relationships with stakeholders, did not have leadership teams that could and would speak up to the president, and so on. Often more than one factor is involved.

But there are many success stories for which presidents can take heart. Most of the success stories involve some or all the points we have made here, such as relationships with stakeholders, strong leadership teams, planning, communications, and leadership.

For example, Hurricane Katrina virtually destroyed the physical plan of Tulane University, and the campus was closed for some time. President Scott Cowen made tough decisions on staff and structure with a good team and a supportive board. He and his team dealt with huge problems aggressively and with creativity. He feels that there are at least some “silver linings” as some of the changes put in place were overdue at the university and the university worked with the community as never before. All Tulane students are now required to have some engagement with the community.

Sally Mason was president of University of Iowa when a flood brought huge disruption and nearly a billion dollars’ worth of damage. Sally was fairly new as president, but her leadership, communication, and a good team pulled the university through.

Covid has been a crisis for most higher education leaders. In fact, in years ahead, we suspect that presidents will be in two groups: those who went through Covid as a president and those who did not. Generally, presidents did well with various approaches to Covid in part because they led with concern for students, faculty, and staff. They generally communicated, supported, and engaged with safety problems and with the switch to online courses. (Of course, we still deal with the learning gap problems and other impacts of the pandemic.) Many universities went above and beyond. A good example is the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, which developed an inexpensive and rapid Covid test for its campus and then, with huge help from the University of Illinois System, made the test available throughout Illinois and beyond. As Chancellor Robert Jones says, “We are a land-grant university and that is what we do.”

Crises can have an ongoing effect with new leadership playing a critical role. Penn State University had a crisis involving sexual misconduct and the football program in the early 2000s. There was continuous local and national media attention, and the president left his position. Rod Ericson, a long-time “Penn Stater” became president, and his value-based and steady leadership was widely trusted by stakeholders. His campus is forever grateful.

To conclude, crises are likely to come. They will be hard and will challenge presidents and their teams. We believe our suggestions for planning for and managing crises at the time provide a reasonable framework for dealing with crises and can help minimize the damage to these important institutions.


Jacobsen, Merna J. “Leadership Strategies Dealing with Crisis as Identified by Administrators in Higher Education.” PhD diss., Texas A&M University, 2010.

Lerbinger, Otto. 1997. The Crisis Manager: Facing Risk and Responsibility. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Menghini, Rebecca J. “Presidential Responses to Crises at Public University Campuses: What Leaders Do and How Others Perceive Their Actions.” EdD diss., University of Pennsylvania, 2014.

About the authors


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License

Presidential Leadership and Crises Copyright © 2024 by Mr. Peter McPherson and Dr. Rebecca J. Menghini is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.