University President Discourse After an On-Campus Crisis

Andrea Renee DeCosmo


The presidents of higher education institutions (HEIs) may, at some point during their tenure, be faced with managing a crisis such as a natural disaster, an individual or group intending to harm the campus community, or a large-scale accident or student protest. While leadership can take on many forms in daily life, leadership after crisis requires communication with stakeholders and the media, and may help or hinder crisis recovery (Hincker, 2014). Understanding the elements included in HEI president post-crisis discourse may help presidents and crisis managers formulate a comprehensive crisis communication strategy, moreover, it provides the higher education community the opportunity to learn from presidents’ experiences so that we may be better prepared to communicate post-crisis. This study focused on university president discourse after an on-campus crisis and explored four crisis types: environmental, intentional, accidental, and student protest. Three cases were considered under each crisis type, for a total of 12 cases. Data included transcripts from speeches, press conferences, press releases and interviews, written statements, authored articles, and emails from the president starting the day the crisis impacted the HEI through one year after. Use of framing devices, recommended strategies from situational crisis communication theory (SCCT), and other emergent themes were explored. Findings were compared within and between each crisis type. While framing devices were present in the HEI president discourse of all 12 cases, presidents leading their HEI through an environmental crisis used them most often. Of the four crisis types considered, presidents leading their institution through environmental crises used recommended SCCT strategies in their discourse, while the discourse of presidents leading after the other crisis types included strategies that were misaligned. Major themes identified in the presidents’ discourse included positivity from environmental crisis cases, and messages of family and community from accidental crisis cases, but common themes within intentional and student protest cases were not found. Results from this study can assist current and future HEI presidents who are faced with managing a crisis by creating awareness of framing devices and SCCT recommendations and informing how they can be used to communicate, support, and lead after particular types of crises.