10 Lessons for University Crisis Management

Zach Brooke
AMA Higher Ed Symposium
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Key Takeaways

What? Former Pomona College president David W. Oxtoby gained a large amount of press last year when he rounded up more than 700 signatures of high-ranking university officials across the country imploring President-elect Donald Trump to preserve the DACA program. 

So what? Oxtoby won't be the last administrator to speak out. Because of their mission, many university leaders feel they must sometimes abandon objectivity and weigh-in on political issues.​

Now what? If you're going to get political, make sure you come correct

Pomona Statement offers 10-point plan guiding college presidents as public policy leaders

Many brands would prefer not to wade into politics. For colleges and universities, that’s not an option. Long hotbeds of activism, campus issues surrounding free speech and immigration are seeping into the national political discourse at-large.

While each issue is distinct and to not subject to a paint-by-numbers public relations approach, case studies can offer instruction.

You won’t find a more timely example than work by David W. Oxtoby, keynote speaker at the 2017 Symposium for Higher Education. Now visiting scholar at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, Oxtoby spent the last 14 years leading the Los Angeles area private school Pomona College. Heading into the 2016-17 academic year, Oxtoby announced he would be stepping down from his post after the year was up. What was planned to be a victory lap of sorts following more than a dozen years of steady leadership became one the biggest tests of his tenure upon the election of Donald Trump.

Large parts of Trump’s campaign centered on curbing illegal immigration and blowing up the Consideration of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Nearly 4% of Pomona’s student body was made up of DACA recipients or others living in the U.S. without legal permission. As the election returns rolled in on November 8, 2016, Oxtoby’s phone lit up with several variants of the same question: What was Pomona going to do?

He called an emergency meeting of the university cabinet the next morning. There, they flushed out what would become a 10-point plan to address the political situations. The steps undertaken by university officials included:

1. Set A Clear Goal

The morning after Trump’s election the Pomona College administration, led by Oxtoby, resolved to preserve DACA.

2. Create Clear Messaging With a Call to Action

While Oxtoby wanted to protect vulnerable students, he wasn’t necessarily spoiling for a fight with the newly elected president of the United States, and he certainly didn’t want to alienate alumni or other university stakeholders. After much debate, the exec team decided to draft a document called the Pomona Statement which aimed to uphold and support DACA on the grounds of “being a moral imperative.” He offered to meet with adversaries and policymakers to discuss the issue in person.

3. Understand Who to Reach and What They Should Do

Oxtoby’s initial efforts were focused at an elite audience of two parts: chancellors from universities and policymakers in Washington, D.C. He chose this group because they comprised the select few who could directly act to further his goals.

4. Digital Strategy

As the final wording on the digital strategy came together, Oxtoby directed a social team to launch a microsite to be passed around by concerned parties and distributed to the media in an effort to gain traction.

5. Relationships Built on Trust

Oxtoby was able to leverage his personal relationships and reputation to gain. Implicit among the agreement was that the wording of the statement would never change once it had reached final draft form. When the signing period for the Pomona Statement concluded, it included more than 700 signatures from high ranking university officials.

6. Timing

Under different circumstances, Oxtoby may have preferred a more drawn out approach to build larger consensus and affect gradual change. But during the initial push, his team was hearing rumors that DACA could be revoked by executive order as early as inauguration day, January 20, 2017. The team elected to act as fast as possible to ensure their efforts would obtain the greatest possible resonance.

7. Learning

Throughout the process, Oxtoby looked to past examples of activist university presidents campaigning for policy reform and social change.

8. Media Coverage

When the statement was ready to go live, university relations officials reached out to influential press outlets both in higher ed and the public at-large to offer up interviews with Oxtoby. Several organizations took Pomona College up on its offer and reported in-depth on the effort.

9. Commitment

Once the statement was released to the world, and the press coverage had come and gone, Oxtoby and his team kept pushing.

10: Be Open Minded About Coalitions

Oxtoby’s efforts eventually took him to Capitol Hill, where he lobbied members of Congress from diverse backgrounds, using slightly different approaches to secure buy-in for his efforts. “We will not solve tough problems working in an echo chamber,” he says.

A year later, Oxtoby admits there is much work still needed to be done to secure  DACA’s future. But he points to a noticeable softening in language from President Trump toward DACA recipients as a sign that his efforts are making a difference.


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Zach Brooke
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