I’m a proud Mizzou alumna but I am not so proud of my alma mater this week. The fall semester at the University of Missouri has been a tumultuous one, with protests and rallies over everything from health care for graduate students to incidents of racism on campus. As a result, the university president and chancellor of the flagship campus in Columbia both resigned yesterday. It became almost impossible for the two men to remain in leadership after a graduate student began a hunger strike and football players said they would boycott games until the president resigned. Those were just the highlights that grabbed national headlines. Many – faculty, students and alumni – publicly expressed their deep concern about the situation on campus, especially for students of color, and the lack of communication from the administration.
One academic department summed up the feelings of many in a statement of support for Jonathan Butler, the graduate student who began the hunger strike: “The ELPA faculty would like to share our disappointment and grief related to a long history of racism, prejudice, and discrimination at MU and the inadequate response of campus leadership to an ongoing culture that permits these incidents to thrive…”
As both an alum and a crisis communications expert, I’ve followed the coverage with interest. I watched the YouTube video of the president remaining in his car while student protestors blocked its path during the homecoming parade. I read articles in the student newspaper (www.themaneater.com) and posts from students that fellow alumni shared on social media. Where was the communication from the university? Even after the president and chancellor resigned, it took much too long for the university to post a release on its website. As of this writing, the university has yet to post updates on Facebook or Twitter, or send anything to my email inbox, where I frequently receive fundraising requests. In fact, I’ve received two emails within the past week – one from the School of Journalism, the other from the Alumni Association. Neither mentioned the incidents I’ve been reading about in The New York Times.
By not communicating directly with its most critical stakeholders, the university missed an important opportunity to solidify those relationships. Perhaps they hoped we wouldn’t hear about the controversy. That’s very naïve in these days of social media and online access to information. Unfortunately, without any communication from the university, we’re left to draw our own conclusions based on media coverage, which was alarming. Keep in mind that Mizzou has a renowned journalism program so there is no shortage of ambitious student reporters on campus, posting information that is easily accessible to alumni, donors, prospective students and their families.
It’s a huge mistake in a crisis to remain silent and allow key stakeholders to hear bad news only from the media. The good news is that, with new leadership, the university has an opportunity to take meaningful steps to change the culture on campus. Let’s hope they also improve communications – not just with those on campus but with all of us who care about Mizzou.