Lessons in Leadership

The hazing death of Florida A&M (FAMU) drum major Robert Champion and the long-concealed child sexual abuse by Jerry Sandusky at Penn State University have prompted an intense focus within higher education on how campus leaders should respond in times of crisis, particularly one involving suspected criminal activity.“If you suspect criminal activity, call the police. That’s the only way to protect the institution,” says Dr. Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president of government and public affairs at the American Council on Education.

Hartle and other experts say college leaders should obey laws on reporting possible crimes, assemble a management plan and a predetermined team for crises, conduct an internal investigation without compromising any criminal probes and privacy laws, “take ownership” of the issue and release as much information as legally allowed.   

Because of due process protections, those experts advise against automatically firing suspected campus employees or expelling students believed to be at fault.

The test for removing a college president or other administrators, experts say, is whether he or she gathers the relevant information, shares it with the board of trustees and takes decisive action to address the crisis.

At Penn State, the cover-up of Sandusky’s crimes failed those tests, resulting in the departure of president Graham Spanier, athletic director Tim Curley, vice president Gary Schultz and famed football coach Joe Paterno.

“The idea that the university [officials] had knowledge of this and dealt with it inappropriately is just a catastrophic failure of leadership,” says Dr. James T. Minor, director of higher education programs at the Southern Education Foundation. “It just calls for being terminated.”

Those Penn State officials failed to follow Hartle’s “first rule” in such circumstances—notify the police. They disregarded a federal law on reporting campus crime and possibly Pennsylvania law that mandates reporting of child sexual abuse, which does not specifically mention coaches. Most states have a similar “mandatory reporting” law.

Dr. James Ammons, who was Florida A&M’s president when Champion died following a hazing incident in November, resigned in July after a deluge of media coverage of the only known marching band death from hazing ever in the country, according to Dr. Walter Kimbrough, president of Dillard University and a national expert on hazing.

‘No Sacred Cows’

Speaking generically of college officials confronted with suspected criminal acts, John Burness, who was Duke University’s chief spokesman during the ultimately dismissed rape charges against members of the school’s lacrosse team, says: “The first thing they have to do is obey the law.”

Both Penn State and Florida A&M were confronted with taking action against the public face of each institution. Paterno was dismissed, and Florida A&M’s Marching 100 band, which has performed around the world, including in President Obama’s inaugural parade, was put on hiatus.

“I think one lesson that you would pull from both Florida A&M and Penn State is: No sacred cows. Isolation and creating separate standards are very bad things,” Hartle says.

Hartle and Kimbrough note that critics fault Ammons for not being more visibly engaged and taking stronger action. He did suspend the Marching 100 for at least the next school year, a suspension that Kimbrough argues should last at least five years.

Hartle says the band “probably required closer monitoring and oversight than it was getting” because of its history of hazing. “If it’s something that has happened before, you have to be hyperaware of it,” he adds.

Kimbrough is less critical of Ammons, whom he has known for several years and calls “a fine university president,” despite his resignation.

“I blame the folks around him for not providing him with enough information. He has a million things on his plate,” Kimbrough says. “He’s not going to know all of the day-to-day goings-on with the band. He knew there had been problems in the past. That’s public record. But he has folks who are supposed to take care of that.”

The irony is that Florida A&M has pursued best practices to prevent hazing. Back in 1983, it adopted a policy that mandated anti-hazing education for every student group. That policy is broader than Kimbrough’s recommendation of targeting high-risk groups like Greek organizations and bands for annual educational sessions, but since 2008 Florida A&M has tailored special sessions for band members. School officials repeatedly and publicly professed “zero tolerance” for hazing.

Those steps, however, did not halt serious hazing:

• In 1998, clarinetist Ivery D. Luckey was paddled more than 300 times in an initiation ritual, suffering kidney damage. Florida A&M suspended 20 students in the Marching 100 from the university. Luckey received an undisclosed financial settlement.

 

• Three years later, trumpeter Marcus Walker suffered kidney failure from a severe paddling. He won an undisclosed settlement too and a $1.8 million judgment against the five band members who struck him.

 

• Then in 2006, members of Kappa Alpha Psi beat pledge Marcus Jones with canes so badly that he required stitches. Two Kappas were the first students convicted under Florida’s anti-hazing law, the nation’s toughest, and spent nearly two years in prison. The university banished the fraternity from campus for seven years, a step Kimbrough calls standard practice.

 

• Champion, 26, died last November after fellow band members beat him badly on a bus after a football game in Orlando, Fla.

Prosecutors have charged 13 students with violating Florida’s anti-hazing law, and Champion’s parents have sued the university and bus company. In the media, Kimbrough says Champion’s death has become “the most covered hazing death in the history of American higher education.”

FAMU is going beyond standard practices with its plans to hire a campus anti-hazing coordinator and a band compliance officer. School administrators are also seeking two different individuals to chair the music department and direct the band, adding another layer of oversight of the Marching 100.

“I think they have had a history of doing a lot of the best practices, but their situation is different,” Kimbrough says. “It’s a very different campus climate, and so those in leadership positions have to say we have got to take it to another level, just based on our clientele, our population, and what’s happened here.”

Looking Ahead

So what’s a college or university to do?

Because of the crises at Florida A&M and Penn State, Rae Goldsmith, vice president for advancement resources at the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE), has been answering that question a lot lately. Her recent in-person presentations on crisis management have drawn full houses, and a June webinar attracted participants from 69 institutions.

“We did this webinar on this topic because it’s a very hot topic,” Goldsmith says, referring to CASE. “The first, most important thing to do is to prepare as much as you can a plan and practice the plan” for handling a crisis.

“Many institutions have crisis teams, and on those teams will be campus law enforcement, student affairs, communications, sometimes the leadership of the institution, sometimes legal counsel,” Goldsmith says. “The team should be prepared to respond.”

Both Hartle and Minor say that, no matter how much an institution prepares, the risk of a serious hazing incident or other campus crisis remains.

“The fact is that, if you are running a college or university, the likelihood that something will go seriously wrong is fairly high,” Hartle says. “You simply—no matter how much risk management you practice—cannot eliminate the possibility that something will go terribly wrong.”

That also means that a president or chancellor can be at risk of being removed in the aftermath of a crisis.

“When a crisis is so damaging to the institution’s reputation, and there isn’t a perception that the leadership of the institution has taken ownership of the crisis, sometimes the only way to rebuild confidence in the institution is through a change in leadership,” says Goldsmith.

“That can be true even when it’s not the leader’s fault.”