WSU Pullman Chancellor, Provost and Executive Vice President Elizabeth Chilton’s comments regarding how university leaders should communicate and respond to challenging topics were included in a recent Chronicle of Higher Education newsletter.
Chilton’s response to a Dec. 20 Chronicle’s Daily Briefing Newsletter was published in the Jan. 18 edition.
The topic of higher education leadership’s communications strategies in responding to political topics and the potential pitfalls were the central issue up for discussion. The topic was brought to the forefront by the Dec. 5 testimony of leaders of the University of Pennsylvania, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Harvard University before members of a congressional committee investigating antisemitism on college campuses, and the resulting discourse.
Chilton’s comments published in the Jan. 18 Daily Briefing Newsletter are included below:
- Assume you will be sued and audited. Both are so common in my experience that one learns being a leader in higher ed means being held accountable. We need to be able to open our books at any point and demonstrate that we are shepherding state, federal, and private resources responsibly and ethically. When I have been at institutions where there are findings in an audit, it means we have identified something we need to improve.
- Seek and model transparency. Transparency and clarity support equity. I always seek to be clear about what informs my decisions. In all cases I ask how the decision will affect others. How do I ensure I am hearing enough voices while being efficient in decision making? How do I communicate the results of my decisions?
- Take the “side” of your students, faculty, and staff. When there is a major national or international crisis or social/political event, university leaders are often called upon to make a statement. It is not our job to “take sides” per se (often the issue is so complex that identifying a distinct “side” is impossible), but to offer support and recognition to our students, faculty, and staff who may be experiencing trauma. My response is to clearly state our values, acknowledge what our community members may be experiencing, and ensure that all are informed about university resources at their disposal to support them. I also ensure that I educate myself further on whatever the issue may be.
- Embrace change clearly and loudly. If there are things we can do better, then be clear and public about what those changes are — and follow through. I would never, ever in my professional or personal life “embrace the vague,” as Burke describes. Moreover, I know many, many leaders who are with me on that. I think if you were to talk to leaders at APLU, AAC&U, or NASH, you would find a group of higher-education professionals who are dedicated to student success (in the broadest and most sincere sense of the word), research for the public good, and social and economic benefits for their states.
- Remember to be grateful. It is a sincere privilege to serve as a university chancellor or president and work with dedicated teams of faculty, staff, alumni, and community members who are committed to our students and our mission. To be sure, there are significant challenges and headwinds in higher education, but the stakes are high, especially for those who are underserved. For me, as a first-generation college graduate, the opportunity to work toward changing lives for the better is a true honor.