Leadership intelligence: how to communicate with your institution

University leaders are increasingly expected to communicate directly with staff and students, often on controversial topics – how should they handle this tricky task?

January 3, 2019
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With the controversy over the high pay of UK vice-chancellors still fresh, some might have expected Alice Gast to keep a low profile.

After all, the president of Imperial College London is one of the country’s highest-paid university leaders. Her overall pay package, including pension contributions, amounted to £432,700 in 2017-18, latest accounts show. Meanwhile, her £300,000-plus earnings from industry that year – most of which come from the US oil giant Chevron – are likely to be the highest in the sector.

However, the US chemist, who has led Imperial since September 2014, took a different approach from most vice-chancellors.

In an email sent to Imperial staff on 11 December, Professor Gast spelled out the exact details of the extra paid activities, which, she said, amounted about 30 days of work. She added that such roles “strengthen our relationships and broaden my perspective on international collaboration and best practice in corporate governance”.

In turn, she also listed a number of corporate sponsors of her research. “The benefits from these corporate collaborations and consultancies extend beyond the financial support and made me a better researcher and educator,” added Professor Gast, who also detailed how some 287 academics had led projects for Imperial’s in-house consultancy firm.

Those interested in her university pay were also provided with a link to the latest annual financial statements – which led some online commenters to commend Professor Gast on what was seen as refreshing openness about her earnings.

“I think this is a good example of what leaders should do,” said Jon McNaughtan, assistant professor of educational psychology and leadership at Texas Tech University, whose recent research has focused on institution-wide communications by US university leaders.

“The mentality that as leaders we can ‘hide our warts’ is past – there are too many ways for stakeholders to get information and, as time goes on, our digital trail is pretty encompassing,” reflected Dr McNaughtan, who, with co-author Elisabeth Day McNaughtan, interviewed eight university presidents and four vice-presidents of communications for their paper “Election contention: Understanding why presidents engage with contentious issues”, which was published recently in Higher Education Quarterly.

One issue highlighted by interviewees was the need to emphasise the university’s “values” in any communications because, according to one leader, these values “were uniting”. In Professor Gast’s case, appealing to the entrepreneurial spirit of Imperial staff, as well as to their commitment to academic citizenship, helped to turn what could have felt like an apology into a celebration of industry-academia partnerships.

Striking the right tone in presidential communications was difficult, admitted many presidents interviewed for the study. If messages are too vanilla, presidents risk accusations of cowardice, but anything too strident could inflame matters beyond campus, they added. “We know that it’s ultimately a public communication to the state – it’ll get picked up by the newspapers here immediately anytime we issue a statement,” said one university leader.

Moments of high emotion on campus sparked by controversial video posted on social media pose a particular challenge, said several interviewees. “One of the presidents in our study talked about the ‘Boren’ effect, which referred to the swift action of President [David] Boren from the University of Oklahoma after an incident with a fraternity that set the standard for addressing some issues immediately,” Dr McNaughtan told Times Higher Education.

However, one university head also wondered whether Professor Boren’s swift announcement in 2015 that two students had been expelled over alleged racist chanting was an unhelpful precedent because it was unclear if due process had been followed. “He set the bar very high…and I think that’s the standard that a lot of the country looks at,” said the university head, adding that presidents are now expected to “weigh in…when there’s an offensive racist incident on campus”.

“When institutions do not immediately address or communicate about allegations of sexual assault, financial impropriety or other major issues, they risk others driving the narrative without pertinent information,” Dr McNaughtan said.

Many of Dr McNaughtan’s interviews concerned the 2016 election of Donald Trump as US president. 

Mr Trump’s brand of nationalist politics has met strong opposition at ethnically diverse US universities, and many presidents interviewed detailed how they had sought to reassure specific minority groups on their campuses that were feeling vulnerable – such as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer students and students with immigrant parents.

But one president added that he was also keen to offer words to “students who supported Trump [who] felt like they were being alienated and marginalised on campus”.

As one institutional head put it, the role of university president is to be “a voice of reason in times of stress and not one that adds to the stress in some way or other”. Whether they manage to achieve this aim in today’s divisive political environment will continue to remain a challenge for university leaders across the world.

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com

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