Crisis Management and Transformation

Table of Contents

Why is Higher Ed Crisis Management and Transformation Important?

"After a crisis, going back to business as normal doesn’t work – you can’t put the genie back in the bottle."


Just ask Dr. Scott Cowen, President Emeritus of Tulane University, about what he did following Hurricane Katrina when there was no script for how to deal with what he was facing. Or the board chair whose university was put on probation by their accreditor and was told that their president was the primary reason for the sanctions. Or your most effective dean has been accused of sexual harassment, and the initial investigation confirms this and multiple other cases involving him.

Some university leaders and their leadership teams seek to return to the status quo.

On the other hand, the best and brightest high-performing leadership teams use the crisis to transform and get better.

Leveraging an unexpected crisis to transform takes more than just having experience in higher education. It takes leadership, a broad skill set, crisis management expertise, and a holistic approach to meet the challenges of righting the ship and turning the university around.

You must quickly deal with public issues, fix the internal issues, such as governance issues, and put a plan together to move forward post-crisis.

Not a small task.

But perhaps most importantly, you must have the vision to see new possibilities, the ability to chart a course to get there, and the leadership skills to bring others along to create a shared vision for the new state. It requires a broad, holistic view of the organization, the discipline to chart the course forward, and the leadership courage to make needed changes.

Most institutions never recover. But that doesn’t need to be you. The best and brightest use crises to transform to a new level.

You have had (and perhaps weathered) a crisis, and now you have a unique opportunity to transform your institution. To make changes that you know you’ve needed but haven’t been able to. Think about the many colleges and universities that have made significant changes during and in the wake of COVID. They leveraged an opportunity to get done what they couldn’t during normal times.

You have a choice: Struggle or transform.  As John Maxwell says, change is inevitable, but growth is optional.

Benefits of Good Crises Management and Transformation Practices

The ability to transform after a crisis enables a higher education institution to:

Make needed changes that were out of reach because of entrenched mindsets and behaviors

Create new policies and processes that enable your institution to reach new heights and goals

Leverage people’s need for stability to build a new and compelling vision for the future

Build a more healthy financial picture for your institution while implementing needed changes

Create a culture of “doers” versus “negative Nellys” who always oppose needed changes

Create a cadre of leaders who can see the new future and are willing to work for it

Operate with the highest integrity and ensure its institutional reputation remains excellent

Remain in good standing with its accreditor and be eligible to receive Title IV funds

Signs Your Institution is In Trouble

There are many telltale signs that an institution is in or approaching a crisis, and is only one disruptive event from a major event happening. Unfortunately, many of them are things that the institution has done and/or lived with for many years, saying “this is our culture / just the way we do things.” In reality, these are red flags that tell us that your institution is at risk, that it has not kept up with the rapidly changing external environment and/or ignored nagging problems that have / will become major issues.


Faculty have threatened (or held) a vote of no confidence against administration or the board


Faculty and staff are leaving in higher than normal numbers and/or hiring replacements is very difficult / costs a lot


Silos, not cross-department communications are the norm and lead to missed opportunities or mistakes


You consistently fail to meet key performance indicators from your strategic plan resulting in missed revenues


Administration does not do regular or realistic risk planning as part of your annual strategic planning


Projects and/or initiatives are not completed because people are stretched beyond reasonable capacity


The institution has significant debt, and its revenues do not covers salaries and institutional expenses


The institution has had multiple layoffs, and/or layoffs are piecemeal and the root cause has not been addressed


Your endowment is less than four times operating expenses and/or you must tap into it to make ends meet


The institution lacks a shared vision across the stakeholder groups who work at cross-purposes to each other


The institution has not met its enrollment goals for two consecutive years or more


Faculty shared governance and academic freedom is at risk due to politics and/or an micromanaging board

Can You Leverage a Crisis to Transform?

Higher education institutions face more and greater challenges than ever.  Some are of their own making such as votes of no confidence, while most result from external forces. All can threaten an institution’s existence.

Here’s the problem: Most institutions aren’t prepared for a crisis, let alone the aftermath and recovery.

When your institution has a crisis, there are three critical things that must happen to get you back on track once you’ve “stopped the bleeding.”

  • Communicate. Get ahead of the story and do what’s necessary to maintain your good reputation.

  • Stabilize the Situation and Plan for the Future. What’s happened has happened. You can’t put the genie back in the bottle. You must now figure out where you must go from here to make this a transformational event instead of one that ruins your institution and its reputation. This requires holistic planning and building a shared vision for the future.

  • Implement Your Vision. You’ve figured out where you need to go and what needs to be done, but implementing your plan is critical. First, you must answer some questions. Is there an urgency to act? Have you built a guiding coalition to take this forward? Is there a shared vision for what the future looks like? Do you have a solid implementation plan with structures, accountabilities, and deadlines built in?

Read some of our Case Studies and what some of our clients have to say about our consulting services.


Crisis Management and Transformation Best Practices for Higher Education Institutions Include:

Do scenario and contingency planning as part of your regular strategic planning sessions, and update the plan annually

Keep communication lines open with accreditors and other governmental entities that could help you if a disruption occurs

Build a reservoir of trust by being transparent with faculty and stakeholders that can be leveraged in a crisis

Keep up-to-date market research on new trends and innovations in higher ed

Create a culture of continuous innovation, including creating teams that are dedicated to exploring new areas to innovate

Honor shared governance to the maximum extent possible, while ensuring that all parties “stay in their lanes”

Identify and recruit a diverse board whose members have the skills and culture to provide oversight and direction in a crisis

Operate with the highest integrity and transparancy, and ensure its institutional reputation remains excellent

Create a sense of urgency around the transformation following a crisis, and build a shared vision for the future

Look for opportunities to innovate, and never be satisfied with the status quo

What We've Done to Help Our Consulting Clients

The Change Leader has “been there – done that.” We’ve successfully navigated individual and organizational crises: flying military aircraft in hostile situations … unexpected leadership transitions … building and implementing turnaround plans … getting your institution off probation after two successive sanctions. And this experience and expertise can help you not only recover but transform your institution.

We work with your team to ensure that the reputational damage is cleaned up with its communication and media specialists, and simultaneously, we work with you and your team to chart the course to fix the issues and transform the institution.

For example, with one recent client who had been put on probation by its accreditor, we worked with them to get off probation and transform their institution to become even more profitable. 

  • Determined what needed to be done across the university to remedy the root causes for their being placed on probation and developed a comprehensive consensus-based turnaround/recovery plan that addressed the issues.
  • Built a shared vision across the institution to the solutions and plan forward.

  • Communicated with the accreditor and institutional stakeholders to assure them that the situation was being remedied and shared with them the plan forward.

  • Created strategic and implementation plans to take them from crisis to transformation.

  • Implemented multiple structural and personnel changes that remedied the issues and prevented them from reoccurring in the future, actions that take the institution to a new level of excellence.


Read some of our Case Studies and what some of our clients have to say about our consulting service

Crisis Management and Transformation Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Top questions and answers about board governance consulting for higher education

What is Higher Education crisis management?

Crisis management is the process by which higher education institutions deal with a disruption – an unexpected event or crisis that threatens their existence, reputation, and/or stakeholders.


What is transformational change in Higher Education?

Transformation is the strategic process that enables an organization to consciously change and evolve to a new level. Transformational change is fundamental, dramatic, and often irreversible. It is change that reshapes and realigns strategic goals and often leads to radical breakthroughs in beliefs or behaviors.


How to you transform an institution?

This really is a question of how much shared vision do you have. Because without a shared vision for the future, you are DIW (dead in the water).

If you can build a shared vision, you can transform the world (and your institution).

Once you’ve built the shared vision around where you want to go and how you will get there, it becomes a change management exercise.


What is shared vision?

At a minimum, higher education boards should have four committees: academic affairs, strategy and marketing, finance, and audit and risk. Other committees which can be of benefit include university life (staff, students, and athletics), nominations and governance, development (fundraising), and executive.


How do we overcome a crisis?

Diversity is critical in today’s society, but there is more to diversity than race, gender, ethnic background, and other “categories” which are bantered about.

Diversity is about diversity of thought – what is the perspective that we bring to the board and how is it important. Can a 70-year-old white male who graduated from Harvard and has held executive jobs for the past 40 years understand the challenges a 19-year-old black or Asian woman has to deal with at their university. Perhaps, but not at the same level as would someone who has a similar background to that student.

Your board (and your faculty and administration) should reflect the diversity of your student pool. As the saying goes, “you cannot understand who I am until you have walked a mile in my shoes.”


Can we use a crisis to transform our institution?


Coming out of a crisis, you have an opportunity to (re)build sometime new and better than you had before. And once you’ve built a shared vision for your future with your stakeholders, you must execute to make that vision happen.

The good news is that when you have that shared vision, people will (usually) want to work in new ways to make sure you don’t go back there again.

But make no mistake, getting there can be hard work and requires a plan forward and execution.


How do I build a culture that better anticipates (and prevents) crises?

There are multiple things you can do to bulwark your institution against crises.

The first of these is building trust among stakeholder groups and especially faculty and administration. When stakeholder groups are more trusting and transparent with one another, they will willing to raise and discuss issues that they see may impact the college or university. 

Stakeholder strategic planning that drives toward long-term goals with measurable outcomes is also important. People support what they help create, and when the stakeholders see something that may impact their shared vision, they will be willing to speak up.

Lastly, doing enterprise-wide risk management (planning and oversight) is critical. When a culture of risk planning is inculcated into an institution, coupled with trust, people are willing to speak out and head off prospective crises.

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