What to Do When the Sky Is Falling: How Alumni Associations Respond in Campus Crises

We often say that alumni associations are the lifetime connection between alumni and their alma mater. Never is this connection Dominoesmore important, or more tested, than in a crisis.

Consider Penn State’s Sandusky scandal (2011), Virginia Tech’s campus shooting (2007), or the University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors governance crisis (2012). The alumni associations at these institutions responded, and at the recent CASE Summit,  their leaders shared how they navigated the crises. This article from Diverse: Issues in Higher Education summarizes their key tips.

Most striking about what they shared is how basic their advice was. There was no reference to elaborate PR strategies. Rather, transparency, teamwork and trust were the guiding principles.

  • Roger Williams, executive director of the Penn State Alumni Association, emphasized the need to be straightforward with alumni. “Give them the honest scoop. If your trust and credibility go up in smoke, then it’s ‘Game over.'” His comments echoed what he shared with BWF in a video interview after the initial crisis had subsided.
  • Tom Tillar, vice president for alumni relations at Virginia Tech, recalled that the association “didn’t wait for instructions” in responding to the shooting. “We just acted on our own, but we also had an enormous sense of trust with colleagues.” The alumni center became the hub for media activity, which allowed privacy for families of students in other parts of campus.
  • Tom Faulders, president and CEO of the UVa Alumni Association, noted the tension between their obligation to both the alumni and the university amidst the university president’s resignation. “Lots of people wanted us to pick a side, but we didn’t. We went down the middle because that was where we decided we needed to be.”

It may sound like simple advice, but if our organizations don’t have these day-to-day basics down, we will falter when we are most needed.

Here are a few questions to ponder before a crisis hits:

  • Does your alumni association or alumni relations program have the courage and leadership to speak out when crisis issues arise?
  • What can you do today to strengthen the relationships with your institution’s leadership so that your organization is a trusted partner or leader in the response?
  • How would your institution’s leadership respond if you carried an alumni voice to an issue?
  • How effective are your alumni communication channels? Are they trusted information sources?
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