Although crisis management and business continuity planning are becoming more prevalent across sectors, academe is sometimes overlooked by traditional government and consulting agencies and companies. In many communities, academic institutions are large employers and major stakeholders. Even when administrators have prepared responses for traditional, (generally natural) threats or hazards, they miss other threats just as dangerous to their continued existence or success, like a major cheating scandal, academic dishonesty among faculty members, or an inappropriate donation. A brief search of academic websites shows a number who make their crisis plans available online, presumably so their own constituencies have access to them, but invariably these plans appear superficial and untested.
Even if academic institutions have used templates from business or government to develop reasonably good responses, these generally still ignore the governance complexities of faculties and administrations, and perhaps impose management models that simply won’t work.
The planning and response context is very different, and to handle crisis well, academic organizations need to integrate the best other sectors have to offer, while taking into account the unique organizational issues and distinctive values that should be preserved by an institution going through crisis.
This involves understanding the full threat or hazard profiles they face, and the risks associated with each, as well as vulnerability to these risk/threat contexts, and the subsequent capacity-building measures that are needed to mitigate this vulnerability. It requires a close look at the organizational differences inherent in academe and how these vary in complexity or even in “coupling” as defined by Charles Perrow. The critical “business” processes needed to achieve academic objectives are very different from manufacturing or just-in-time inventory control: they are both more durable and more difficult to replace or build redundancies. An academic “hot site” is created simply by moving the professor to a hotel conference room across the street, with little expense or bother. But if the professor and others of her senior colleagues are injured or killed, a significant portion of the organization’s core competency may be threatened. Academic institutions have very different relationships in the communities they inhabit. The institution may have to take a significant leadership role in crisis response and recovery simply by virtue of its size, economic impact, facilities and knowledge resources…a role not necessarily understood by local government, elected officials or businesses. The impact of a disaster on an academic institution varies with the seasons – vulnerability is much greater when a large undergraduate population is resident during term, than when breaks are scheduled.
Hazards, Vulnerability & Capacity
No organization planning for crisis management can afford to, prepare, respond, recover or mitigate every possible threat. Fink includes a list of nearly two hundred possible hazards that can destroy an organization if not handled properly. Lerbinger proposes several useful categories that quickly expand as the administrator’s imagination begins spinning out scenarios. The crisis definition used by the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services leaves few stones unturned and has the same daunting effect on academic planners. No university president can approach a board with the kind of budget it would take to handle every possible threat. There has to be some process that narrows options and applies costs/benefits assessment.
Hazards (or threats) only become manageable when we use some method to order them and test the likelihood that they will actually affect us. There are a number of approaches that accomplish this process fairly quickly and any one could be used, as long as the planner applies the method consistently across the possible threats. Two factors are important: first, unlikely scenarios should be rejected, and second, unsuspected scenarios should be considered. It is as important to avoid resources invested in responding to drought scenarios in the Amazon rain forest, as it is to recognize the potential damage caused by “nontraditional” threats like unethical behavior or political corruption. The latter can destroy an organization as effectively as a major earthquake. Hazards must be considered from across the spectrum.
The planning process proposed starts intentionally with a list of likely threats to an organization, because threat-based responses are inherently more efficient in use of resources. The challenge is to produce plans that are threat-based enough to handle those hazards with the highest probability of actually happening, while maintaining enough generic components to assemble a response to unsuspected hazards with the least effort. Prior to the 9/11 attacks, Manhattan hospitals had practiced mass casualty responses that were just as effective for the victims of terrorism as they would be for those injured in a stadium collapse. As planners review their responses and checklists, it is possible to recognize how actions might be improved or focus when reference is made to the specific threat under consideration.
But it is not enough to identify threats and list responses. How much and what kind of a response translate into costs – all crisis plans and measures will inevitably be seen as costly until the crisis hits. What if the crisis can either be avoided or its potential impact diminished? In emergency management circles this is called mitigation – it essentially means capacity is built in response to threat/vulnerability/risk scenarios or contexts, so that the disaster goes away or strikes with less impact than it might have. “Capacity-building” is a popular term these days, especially in community or international development circles, but it can be usefully understood as mitigation. Systemic poverty in a developing region is undeniably a crisis in technical terms… poverty is a hazard that has struck in a context of vulnerability and high risk, but it is one that can be mitigated by capacity-building at many levels, aimed specifically at the threat/vulnerabilty/risk situation in question.
Academic institutions need the same scrutiny and rigor applied to their own unique contexts. Unreinforced masonry or brick lecture halls built along the New Madrid Fault in the American South are highly vulnerable to earthquake tremors in this largely unknown high-risk seismic zone. Though the cost of mitigating this through renovation is high, the cost of student/staff injuries and deaths should be higher. In the end, mitigation decisions are invariably politically-charged opportunity cost choices. Few doubt in principle that this should be done, until salary increases or new books for the library compete for the same funds. Is the crisis of losing accreditation because of an inadequate library more probable than the risk of losing lives in a 7.2 earthquake? These are not easy decisions, but not considering sound alternatives in mitigation can be more risky.
Surely no organizational design is more peculiar than than of academe. I sat in an audience once and watched the Provost of Oxford University draw the “organizational chart” for his institution. It took several hours and numerous acetate overlays stacked on the overhead projector to begin to comprehend his institution’s organizational complexity. In a severe, fast-moving emergency, how could this structure preserve life and property? Obviously, it wasn’t designed for this purpose. J. D. Thompson identified “synthetic organizations” several years ago in an organizational classic. He observed that in emergencies secondary, temporary organizations formed to handle the crisis, usually intentionally, and that these tended to be more efficient than the original organizational design of the entity. In emergency management discussions, “emergency operations centers” structured using the “incident command system” are Thompson’s synthetic organizations. Managers and administrators shifted focus from their day-to-day responsibilities and reformed into a new organization created to respond to the crisis. In an intense, fast-moving crisis the emergency organization became their full-time [or more] task and normal work was deferred. In a less intense, slower moving crisis, managers might divide their time and move back and forth between organizations throughout the workday. The difference between the emergency response (synthetic) organization and a conventional academic task force or committee lies in the decision making, delegation and acccountability methods and styles used. A shift from lengthy, collaborative, consensus-based activities to “command and control” marks the difference.
Herein lies the most significant and challenging distinctive. In many academic organizations it is most tempting and convenient to limit emergency management to administrators only, if for no other reason than that they are more comfortable with hierarchical management approaches. On the one hand, traditional academic decision making applied to crisis will be a crisis in itself. On the other, something fundamental to academic governance may be lost when important, even life and death, decisions, are restricted to a handful of administrators.