The headline from Poets & Quants exploded like a gunshot: Stanford Confidential: “Sex, Lies and Loathing at the World’s No. 1 B-School[i].” 

Stanford, the #1 ranked business school in the United States, is dealing with a crisis that has all the elements of a modern soap-opera:  a romantic affair, indignant faculty dismissals, angry lawsuits and student drug and alcohol abuse -- all climaxing in the Dean’s abrupt resignation.  

You wouldn’t normally think the terms “scandal” and “business school” would ever exist in the same sentence. But, unfortunately, it does happen.  When it comes to a crisis at a university, leaders need to realize that they will be held accountable for their actions whether a Dean or staff member. 

In some sense, this particular crisis can be defined as a series of events that snowballed into a catastrophic crisis for the institution. So, how can an institution rebuild, maintain and enhance its credibility with key stakeholders?  

The reality is that a crisis event may significantly damage an organization, but if the right processes are in place, individual and institutional reputations will emerge from the rubble stronger and ready to move on. 

Here’s what higher educational institutions need to do today to prepare for the worst case: 

Recognize a Crisis Situation When it Happens

It’s not difficult to recognize a crisis situation when it confronts you, but what if one “sneaks” up on you? Topics in higher education that are constantly on media’s radar include: tuition policies, student drug and alcohol abuse, and faculty, among others. Academic leaders need to lead by example. Its people who make up our colleges and universities, and people are capable of doing things that are illegal, or at least ethically and socially questionable. To guard against such situations, be alert to the potential for perceived or actual wrongdoings and have firm policies in place on all potential troublesome situations. Tight fiscal controls, understandable codes of department ethics, open conversations about areas of concerns with bosses, faculty, and students, among others, can minimize unexpected crisis situations. 

Mitigate a Potential Crisis

In situations where a crisis has the potential to emerge it is crucial to try and mitigate it. Some issues require more confidentiality than others, but campus chief public officers should always be involved in crisis situations early on to prevent the problem from escalating further. 

Be Prepared for a Crisis

It’s important to implement a proactive plan for dealing with a crisis situation. Vital components of a crisis plan include: a general philosophy statement, instructions for the response team to follow, guidelines for getting the word out, instructions for organizing media briefings and news conferences, and education on campus policies when releasing information.

When a Crisis Hits

This is stop, drop, and react time because when a crisis hits time is your enemy. You must get your messaging out to the media and be as open about the situation as possible. When dealing with the media in a crisis situation it’s important to remember the following: if you don’t know the answer say so, never lie or get drawn into speculation, and avoid overreacting and becoming defensive.


Crisis communications, despite the added stress, should be handled exactly the same way as regular communications by delivering accurate information honestly and quickly. We tend think of a crisis situation as being negative, but it can have unanticipated benefits to an academic institution especially if it has a credible program. In a crisis, people often embrace a common goal, resulting in coordinated teamwork that deals effectively with a negative situation. Handled well, crisis communications can enhance the institution’s credibility in ways that surprisingly strengthen its relationship with key stakeholders.

Dr. Norman Booth is Vice President at Coyne