#students | #parents | Advice on supporting campuses’ safety and reputational goals (essay)

The annual Oct. 1 deadline for colleges and universities to disseminate an annual report on the security of their campus communities was a reminder of the Jeanne Clery Act’s goal to increase student safety. Beyond simply disclosing crime statistics, the report shares policy statements and crucial details about an institution’s efforts to communicate, educate and support justice and healing, along with practices that improve and maintain a culture of campus safety.

Since the Clery Act was enacted in 1990, decades of surveys have demonstrated that families and students place campus safety at the forefront of the decision-making process when it comes to which college to attend. In a 2015 study, parents listed a safe environment as the most important factor in a campus environment. For students, that was the second most important factor, behind being a good fit.

As reported in the student poll published by the College Board and Art & Science Group, those results align with a millennial generation theory that students and their parents are more concerned than ever about campus safety. In that survey, 72 percent of students indicated that the safety of the campus was very important to them when it came to the institutions they considered and the one they ultimately chose, and 86 percent reported it was very important to their parents.

Yet not all college and university leaders want to come forward and share honest facts about safety with students and others. The assumption is that bad news will naturally have a negative impact on an institution, with an increased risk to enrollment and, thus, revenue. And, in fact, research from Harvard Business School, “The Impact of Campus Scandals on College Applications,” demonstrates the impact that scandals can have on an institution’s bottom line. Reviewing scandals at the top 100 American institutions of higher education over the past 10 years, it showed that high-profile media coverage of such events resulted in a 9 to 10 percent drop in applications the following year.

Such findings quantify what institutions that have communicated poorly about crimes have known intuitively and been cautious to admit: if they reveal information that is bad for their public relations, they are likely to lose enrollment or experience diminished quality with a lesser pool of applicants. And while the Harvard study did not cover events typically outside an institution’s immediate campus control, a reasonable inference can be made that such events may have a similar impact on admissions to an internal scandal. For example, consider the impact on, and response of, higher education to the 2015 riots after the death Freddie Gray, which occurred during high school senior decision week.

Fortunately, over recent years, institutional accountability has improved, facilitated by the Clery Act’s mandates for better transparency, communication and data. Meanwhile, colleges and universities have found ways to offset negative coverage, as evidenced by college and university leaders in Baltimore who worked to amplify the message that safety has always been a priority on their campuses. With campus safety in fact made a priority, along with a robust communications strategy, those institutions were able to maintain or return to typical admissions levels.

The good news is that institutions reviewed in the Harvard Business School study saw the probability of another negative incident the next year fall by 50 percent. The authors surmise that a campus, following a major scandal, may be less risky due to a genuine response of the administration. Though the types of efforts by institutions are not detailed by the authors, they note that the result is not “explained simply by reversion to the mean.”

Yet the study illuminates an equally important finding: the effect of the diminishing likelihood of another negative incident occurring within the next year dissipates within five years. The return to the same relative risk places in doubt whether an institution’s immediate reactionary efforts to crisis and accountability can be converted into lasting changes that actively reduce the possible occurrence of another negative incident that impacts actual or perceived campus safety.

All of which leads to a question: Why do meaningful organizational changes, as a reaction to crisis, not become an embedded, lasting practice at many colleges and universities?

An answer can be found in the National Center for Campus Public Safety report “Institutionalizing the Clery Act at Institutions of Higher Education.” The synopsis of multiple focus groups, composed of diverse national experts on campus safety and leading institutional representatives, outlines potential obstacles to change. Though higher education’s support for the spirit of the Clery Act is overwhelming, as noted by the report, a general perception exists that complying with all aspects can be a challenge for many institutions. When combined with other mandates like Title IX and state laws, participants discussed how compliance has become time-consuming and resource intensive.

A common factor in most Clery compliance obstacles is identified in the report as an organizational structure problem: that “Clery compliance is not an institutional objective; rather, it is a task assigned to an often small compliance team or individual in the lower levels of an [institution’s] hierarchy.” When institutional leaders are not directly engaged in compliance efforts, it often results in a crucial lack of awareness about the Clery Act and a disjointed understanding of the implications of lapsed compliance that extend well beyond the letter of the law.

NCCPS’s working group, having diagnosed a cause, then identified strategic solutions based in the spirit of the law to facilitate lasting change. Colleges and universities around the country can use those recommendations to identify structural gaps and develop a comprehensive, institutionwide safety network. Such a strategy builds a solid foundation that increases the likelihood that the institution will not only implement but also sustain effective changes.

When such a foundation is not in place at an institution or fails, consequences may occur that could have been mitigated or even avoided. The lessons of the Harvard Business School findings and NCCPS report have been reinforced by the news about the University of Missouri’s close to 33 percent drop in freshman enrollment over the past two years, following extended student protests regarding demands for social change in response to accusations of racism across the university.

And such declines in enrollment revenue do not even touch upon the potential impact negative incidents may have on institutions’ fund-raising and alumni relations. Although fund-raisers are still gauging the effect on philanthropy, some colleges — particularly small, elite liberal arts colleges — have reported a decline in donations accompanied by a laundry list of complaints from alumni when scandals occur.

Holistic Solutions Required

An institution needs holistic solutions to support enduring changes after it experiences a negative incident, recovers from it and begins the efforts to return to a new operational norm. A commitment to robust implementation of the framework and resources that Clery guides institutions to use can have the benefit of providing an additional protective factor against a return to increased risk for scandal. Compliance with Title IX and Violence Against Women Act, or the lack thereof, is another example of an area where a campus needs to focus attention not only on the letter but also the spirit of the law, as well as the increased expectations of students, families, news media, politicians and the public.

The NCCPS report has outlined core principles that top administrators should be considering as part of their response to threats of scandal and negative incidents. Using Robert Agranoff’s award-winning research in “Managing Within Networks” as a model to encourage crossing of departmental and institutional boundaries, presidents and their senior leadership should adopt a risk-management approach and develop a comprehensive campus safety network.

A key takeaway of the report is that communications is the primary factor when it comes to fostering cultural change and buy-in. Colleges and universities should take practical steps to develop such buy-in, widen the scope of compliance responsibility and support ownership throughout the institution of systemic Clery compliance. One suggestion is to create communications plans that help to institutionalize Clery compliance and periodically evaluate and adjust those plans.

Another tangible step is to develop more community partnerships with representatives of local law enforcement agencies. Colleges should also consider identifying student leaders who can serve as educated safety ambassadors and help inform awareness and prevention campaigns. Attaining such buy-in will help ensure long-term mitigation of the effects of scandal and crisis, especially when confronted with additional risk from policies that are developed too fast under duress or fail to be implemented as the crisis subsides.

The report’s insights also focus on structural solutions, such as the recommendation to form an interdisciplinary team from across campus departments that meets regularly. Reinforcing the structural approach, the report highlighted the need to appropriate funding to support full-time personnel and an office that has final, official responsibility for comprehensive Clery compliance.

Finally, having a trusted Clery Act subject-matter expert who is guaranteed a direct line of communication to the highest administrative levels, including the president, is crucial for ensuring efficiency and effectiveness. Fortunately, a similar practice already exists at some colleges and should be replicated; a campus chief of security or director of public safety should be a member of the president’s cabinet and also have access to a staff member or consultant with established Clery/Title IX expertise.

Any program needs to be broad and continuing. If a rote review of a college or university’s annual security report is the only effort made to secure greater campus safety, especially if not a year-round practice, that institution is likely at a higher risk for a safety and compliance problem. Stakeholders in the NCCPS report implore higher education leadership to strategically “focus more on student safety and success in order to honor the spirit of the Clery Act,” avoiding the mind-set of needing to contend with “just another regulation.” A holistic, systemwide culture of campus safety, embraced by the president’s cabinet on down, best represents a thorough understanding, and likely execution, of the spirit of the Clery Act.

Building upon the earlier takeaway that communication is a key factor, the report also notes that “compliance with the Clery Act demonstrates that a campus is listening to and caring for its students.” An institution with a culture of responsive accountability and thoughtful communications, as the Clery Act provides a framework for, will have the organizational habits to create a genuine sense of transparency with the wider campus community. That will involve the development of a feedback loop with a diverse set of stakeholders that can help to actively address serious issues or events on a timely basis.

For example, the University of Missouri’s new leadership has embraced such improved communications as a pathway to change. Board chairman Maurice Graham’s comments about such communications point toward a new focus: “The lifeblood of any university is its reputation; our reputation was at risk.” And the new president’s acting chief of staff, David Russell, has said that the entire Mizzou system has, in the words of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “put the important people first: students, parents, faculty and staff.”

As events on campuses nationwide continue to make headlines, institutional leaders and boards of trustees have a clear choice to make when grappling with campus safety issues. We are in a new era for campus safety in which public safety and public relations finally coexist to serve the campus community, and where robust campus public safety and security strategies for the 21st century also protect the bottom line.

It is important to understand the consequences of institutional crises and give serious consideration to the NCCPS’s identification of the range of potential solutions to address cultural and communication obstacles. Combined, the insights from the HBS and NCCPS papers complement each report’s findings. Such understanding will help to guide an organizationwide effort to develop, coordinate and support a campus’s reputational, economic and campus safety goals. Higher education leaders who embrace this proactive, transparent approach will most likely be successful in supporting the long-term health and safety of their students and institutions.

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