Sexual Assault at UVA: 4 Lessons in Crisis Leadership

There are better ways to handle a situation like the one that has ignited a firestorm at the University of Virginia.

The turmoil that has enveloped the University of Virginia since Rolling Stone magazine’s publication of a scathing article describing a gang-rape at a fraternity party and a university culture “less concerned with protecting students than it is with protecting its own reputation from scandal” has done more than tarnish the reputation of a prestigious public institution. It has produced a primer on how not to lead during a crisis.

The Nov. 19 article included graphic references to a UVA coed, called “Jackie” by the author, who told the magazine she had been raped by seven men at a fraternity party. The article described a university culture in which sexual assaults “are kept quiet” not only by the university administration but also by students “as regrettable but inevitable casualties of their cherished party culture.” Later that day, UVA President Teresa Sullivan issued a statement saying, in part, that the university “takes seriously the issue of sexual misconduct” and that Charlottesville police were being asked to investigate the alleged rape. Then she left the country for a previously scheduled conference.

That’s when all hell broke loose. Students, faculty, alumni and others were outraged not only that a coed had allegedly been gang-raped but also that university officials had apparently done nothing more than offer their support to her. Dozens of current and former UVA coeds wrote to Rolling Stone describing their own rapes on the campus. A Charlottesville newspaper reported that Sullivan and others at UVA had learned of the alleged gang-rape in September but had done little except talk to fraternity leaders.

Sullivan became the focus of much of the outrage from the UVA community. How, some asked, could she refer to gang-rape and other criminal activities as “sexual misconduct”? Why didn’t she cancel her trip and address the firestorm of protests? In response, Sullivan announced that UVA was suspending all fraternities and associated parties until early this month. She also talked in much stronger terms about the problems of sexual assault on campus and promised a long-term effort to change the culture at UVA. Virginia’s attorney general announced that he had asked a prestigious law firm to investigate the rape allegations. And Rolling Stone’s editor acknowledged major discrepancies in the article and apologized, raising the question of whether the gang-rape had actually taken place — and leading to yet another storm of anger and protest.

Any institution facing such a situation needs strong, proactive leadership. To be fair, Teresa Sullivan is a caring, honest human being who has worked hard to improve the welfare of students, faculty and the institution. In this instance, however, her leadership has been flawed. Sullivan’s and other UVA leaders’ inability to understand and deal effectively with the crisis they face is a cautionary tale for all leaders and an important reminder of four key crisis-leadership principles:

• Be wary of the initial information that emerges during crises. In our rapid-fire desire for quick explanations, it’s easy to accept the first reports about a major event. The problem is that those reports are often wrong. After the 1999 murders of 13 people at Columbine High School, some students and school officials said that the two shooters had been victims of school bullying and were acting out of revenge. That explanation was quickly accepted by many professionals who work with kids. But 10 years later, David Cullen wrote in his carefully researched book Columbine that the two were not victims of bullying; indeed, he reported, one of them was often the perpetrator of bullying. Much of the information in the Rolling Stone article about UVA is now suspect, but UVA leaders initially accepted it as fact, creating serious problems for many individuals and groups.

Crisis leaders must resist the temptation to accept the first reports they receive and aggressively seek as much information as possible before taking decisive action.

• Listen carefully to people with sound judgment. President Sullivan’s immediate actions after being told in September of the alleged sexual attack seem woefully inadequate. So, too, were her first comments when the Rolling Stone article appeared two months later. Then, just days later after the article created a firestorm of anger, she switched gears and made very strong statements about rape. People were left wondering why she leapt from a passive response to an aggressive one. Her faltering responses raised an important question: What kind of advice — if any — was she getting as the crisis unfolded?

It’s very difficult to get a sense of perspective in the middle of a crisis. That’s why it’s so important to call on people whose judgment you trust, people who owe you nothing and have experience with the issue you’re facing.

• In crises, communications are (almost) everything. There may be excellent reasons why UVA officials refused for over a month to respond to multiple requests for records related to the alleged gang rape and wouldn’t say whether the report to be issued by the law firm would be made public. Those reasons were not divulged. Thus, some people wondered whether UVA leaders had something to cover up.

The crisis leader’s most precious asset is trust. During a crisis, the leader’s most critical task is to communicate sincerely, openly and consistently with all stakeholders.

• First protect people; think about reputation later. This is one of the most difficult principles for many crisis leaders, especially those who work in agencies with very strong cultures, such as law enforcement, fire/emergency services and transportation. When such agencies experience a crisis that exposes them to strong criticism, they sometimes circle the wagons and point the finger elsewhere. Such defensiveness is understandable, but it is usually counterproductive, as UVA’s leaders have learned.

Crisis leaders need to put their focus squarely on the needs of the people they serve, irrespective of the criticism being leveled at their organization. When people see leaders showing a passion for protection, when leaders focus all of their energies on handling the crisis professionally and openly, reputation usually takes care of itself.