When my colleagues and I first started doing surveys of the crisis preparedness of major colleges and universities, we were shocked but not totally surprised to find that as poorly prepared large business organizations generally are for major crises, colleges and universities were even worse off. It is not that they are completely unprepared. Rather, the difference is between the crises that they are relatively well prepared for versus those that they barely prepared for, if at all.
The contrast sheds important light on why the horrific cases of child abuse happened at Penn State. It also points to why all colleges and universities need to wake up, take a serious look at their crisis preparations, and make significant improvements, if not overhaul them completely.
Major colleges and universities are relatively well prepared for explosions, fires, lawsuits, and crimes. They are also relatively well prepared for environmental mishaps.
But here's the rub. They are not as well prepared for athletic crises such as improper recruiting activities, e.g., out of control drinking and sex parties; ethical breaches by administrators, faculty, and students; damage to their reputation such as that which Penn State is undergoing; sabotage and terrorism.
Sadly, it took a number of widely publicized shootings before colleges took preparations for them seriously.
Part of the difference is explained by the frequency with which certain crises occur. Thus, explosions, fires, lawsuits, and crimes are rather common. But, this is not the major reason.
In the interviews we conducted with the senior staff of colleges and universities, not a single one even mentioned the possibility of child abuse, even though nearly all of them had a major childcare facility on their campus. The major concern was environmental, e.g., if a childcare facility was too close to a dangerous chemical lab.
Most disturbing of all was the fact that we were generally prohibited from interviewing anyone connected with the athletic department. Just as troubling was the fact that the head of the athletic department was least likely to be a member of a campus wide crisis management team, assuming that the college or university had one.
The message was loud and clear. Football and basketball in particular and sports in general are big business. It is not just the sheer amount of revenue that football and basketball attendance bring in, but all of the associated paraphernalia sold in campus stores.
In short, athletics was completely off-limits. It was not to be messed with in any way.
I share the general criticisms that have been levied at big time college athletics. I believe that sports programs are out of control. There is little doubt that they have a major corrupting influence on schools.
However, while the detractors of college sports have been justly critical of the out-of-control recruiting practices at the University of Colorado and USC, just to mention two, they have not thought about the tragedies due to child abuse such as those that have engulfed Penn State.
It's not that there has been no planning at all for athletic crises, but that crisis planning has been done as if each crisis occurs in complete isolation from all of the others. This is in spite of the fact that no crisis is ever a single crisis. It is a whole series of interconnected ones.
Nonetheless, I am not calling for the complete abandonment of collegiate sports. But, make no mistake about it. Collegiate sports can no longer be conducted as business as usual. One of the most disturbing findings from our surveys was that crisis management had the lowest institutional support of all programs. For instance, while education at all levels was rightly ranked highest in importance, support for crisis management was significantly lower than facilities' improvement.
The time is way overdue for major colleges and universities to give crisis management the high degree of attention and support it demands.
If I were part of what's left of Penn State's top management, I'd be worrying about all the other crises that are brewing and have not yet come to light. For once a major crisis of any kind has occurred, it is highly likely that it will set off a completely unrelated crisis.
All crises are parts of a chain reaction. The purpose of crisis management is to get out in front of the chain so that an institution is not destroyed by a firestorm of never-ending, out-of-control crises.
Ian I. Mitroff is an Emeritus Professor from USC. He is currently an Adjunct Professor at UC Berkeley. His latest book with Murat Alpaslan is Swans, Swine, and Swindlers: Coping with the Growing Threat of Mega Crises and Mega Messes, Stanford, 2011.