Series: Student Affairs Emergency Management (Part I)


Emerging Research on Student Affairs Emergency Management:  Lessons Learned and Issues Yet Unexplored

Danielle K.  Molina
Mississippi State University

Mahauganee D.  Shaw Bonds
Independent Scholar and Consultant


While student welfare and campus safety have long been underlying concerns for United States student affairs administrators, deliberations about emergency management on our campuses remained largely in-house; that is, until we were thrust into a post–9/11 era of uncertainty and crisis.  Although 9/11 did not occur directly on a college campus, the event heightened our collective sense of vulnerability in the spaces where individuals went about their daily lives (Kennedy, 2011).  Hurricane Katrina and Virginia Tech, thereafter, brought these fears home, testing our policies, procedures, and overall resilience in the face of unthinkable tragedy.  On one hand, these events exposed emergency management efforts in higher education to the outside world, garnering both public praise and scrutiny for related efforts.  On the other hand, Hurricane Katrina and Virginia Tech compelled student affairs administrators to speak up in defense of their specialized roles related to student-centered crisis intervention and their comprehensive roles in institution-wide emergency management efforts crossing student, policy, and administrative concerns.

As such, a movement led by practitioner scholars has taken up the challenge to make meaning of this complex arena, sharing lived experiences as guidance for addressing the quickly evolving demands of the emergency management arena in student affairs.  In upcoming issues of Developments, a series of articles will highlight emerging ideas on the topic directly from colleagues in the field.  This article will serve as an introduction to that series, providing a broad overview of the knowledge we have drawn together over the intervening decade of examining the emergency management landscape in contemporary student affairs practice.  We hope that this thoughtful approach to reflecting on emergency management not only provides insight for handling campus emergencies, but also suggests areas where practitioners’ expertise is needed to further enhance campus safety in increasingly complex environmental contexts.


Developing a Common Language around Emergency Management in Student Affairs

In the wake of 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and Virginia Tech, three things became evident.  First, student affairs administrators play an intricate and nuanced role in managing crisis on college campuses.  Second, the wisdom gained from managing front-line responses for such events is largely localized and rarely articulated.  Therefore, third, there was an urgent need for administrators to channel their hands-on knowledge about emergency management into generalizable tools for the profession.  A few researchers took up the challenge in important dissertations at the time.  Akers (2007), for example, examined the existing structure, policies, and plans of emergency management efforts on college campuses. Johnson (2007) focused on the leadership decisions that were made by campus leaders in the midst of disaster response.

At the same time, others attempted to connect student affairs scholarship to the broader discourse on emergency management outside of the field.  Harper, Paterson, and Zdziarski (2006) and Zdziarksi, Rollo, Dunkel, and Associates (2007), followed by Myer, James, and Moulton (2011), penned overarching books that encourage readers to adopt a disciplined approach to dissecting, analyzing, and building intentional emergency management capacity in higher education.  While their efforts yielded significant contributions to student affairs and higher education, the texts shared two formative lessons for the profession: knowing the terrain and understanding the process.  Today, these tenets guide scholarly inquiry related to student affairs emergency management and shape the way administrators approach their work therein.


Knowing the Terrain

Before responding to an emergency, it is useful to understand what you are dealing with.  Therefore, it is critical that student affairs practitioners and scholars develop a common linguistic framework for expressing and examining relevant ideas.  For instance, terminology describing an event is particularly important in emergency management work (e.g., distinguishing a critical incident from a campus emergency from a disaster).  The label we assign to an event shapes how we interpret its importance in the scope of our regular work, the immediacy with which we deploy response efforts, and the types of resources we engage (Maitlis & Sonenshine, 2010; Zdzarski, Rollo, & Dunkel, 2007).  Likewise, categorizing sources of emergencies in student affairs (e.g., environmental, facility, criminal, human, and technological) helps attune administrators to the common places where emergencies are likely to arise.


Understanding the Process

In order to effectively manage emergencies, it is also helpful to understand how multifaceted pieces of the administrative puzzle fit together.  Therefore, it is important that student affairs administrators integrate conceptual frameworks used broadly by emergency management personnel across different organizational settings to discipline their work.  Arguably the most important of these conceptual models outlines emergency management as an articulated process with five distinct phases: prevention/mitigation, planning/preparedness, response, recovery, and learning (Harper, Paterson, & Zdziarski, 2006; Zdziarski et al., 2007).

Adopting the five-phase perspective on emergency management has profound consequences for practitioners and scholars of student affairs emergency management work.  Primarily, it dispels us of the notion that emergency management is a one-time task undertaken only by a trained responder in the moments of an unfolding event.  Rather, emergency management begins preemptively, in anticipation of crisis, and extends well beyond as a campus endeavors to heal, return business continuity, and learn from the events that have transpired.  When done well, emergency management is a comprehensive, ongoing, and cyclical process.

The conceptual model also encourages us to acknowledge the array of stakeholders truly engaged in any given campus emergency management effort.  These range from policy makers, legal counsel, front-line campus administrators, and students to media outlets, counselors, external professional emergency personnel, and local community members.  As such, the framework helps administrators recognize that the challenges of managing power, control, collaboration, and coordination amidst crises are normal parts of the emergency management process rather than insurmountable frustrations.  Finally, the model helps both practitioners and scholars understand the shifting roles and responsibilities of these various stakeholders amidst evolving emergency events.  For instance, whereas administrators might take proactive actions in the mitigation and preparedness phases, they must fluidly shift to reactive actions in the response and recovery phases, and highly interactive actions in the learning phase of an emergency.


Building a Repository of Knowledge out of Hands-On Experience

As practitioners in student affairs have developed a more structured way of understanding emergency management in the field, they have also begun to examine its nuanced dynamics with a more critical eye.  The contributions from student affairs administrators are particularly important because the body of work offers a potentially different perspective than many of the pieces authored by scholars interested in higher education more broadly.  In their own research, the authors of this series have recognized some important patterns related to these distinctions.

First, as opposed to offering an executive level view of emergency management in higher education, student affairs scholarship often represents more of a front-line perspective on how crises emerge from both anticipated and unanticipated sources.  Second, the student affairs perspective considers the role that grassroots, bottom-up leadership plays in emergency management than does the strategic, top-down decision-making scholarship related to executive crisis response.  Third, student affairs scholarship on emergency management keeps people at the center of emergency management inquiry, highlighting imperatives for human concerns related to prevention, intervention, and healing alongside managerial concerns about planning, protocols, and business continuity.

While student affairs leaders certainly have the capacity to contribute important and unique perspectives on higher education emergency management, our research suggests that it is often difficult to locate pertinent scholarship outside of the aforementioned textbooks.  There are few forums where lessons learned from emergency management can be systematically and easily shared across institutions.  While publications in professional magazines can offer a platform for those who have recently managed a campus emergency to share thoughts on emergency management, those stories rarely provide generalizable guidance to a wider audience.  As a branch of scholarship largely in its infancy, peer-reviewed research on higher education emergency management is also scarce.  To fill this gap, we have seen an increase in the number of higher education dissertations addressing different aspects of emergency management.  Still, unless dissertation research is transformed into subsequent publishable research, administrators may not have the time or access required to engage these sources of information.

If practitioners cannot easily find information to reflect meaningfully on emergency management in student affairs and to guide important decisions on campuses, they will not put the wisdom gained from existing sources into good use.  In response to this conundrum, we, as co-chairs for Research, Scholarship, and Practice in the Commission for Campus Safety and Emergency Preparedness, have developed a set of strategic goals.  One of our objectives is to recognize the disaggregated efforts individuals have made to advance understanding of student affairs emergency management.  Another goal is to identify keywords and topics that may be relatable to student affairs emergency management work, but not conscientiously written under the guise of emergency management or higher education.  A final, more ambitious, objective is to bring these efforts together into a collective repository of scholarship that can guide and further develop emergency management capacity on behalf of the profession.  Included in this repository will be examples of scholarship focused specifically on the different phases of emergency management and targeted at a student affairs audience.



Prevention/Mitigation scholarship focuses on averting, reducing the likelihood of, and reducing the damage that may occur due to crises on campus (Zdziarski et al., 2007).  From a managerial perspective, one path to finding relevant scholarship in this area is to pursue legal inquiry and advice related to campus safety.  For example, Miller and Sorochty’s (2015) Risk Management in Student Affairs identifies known concerns on college campuses that might be prevented or mitigated in the interest of campus safety.  These include student activities, hazing, substance use, and mental health.  Other scholars add campus violence (Hemphill & LeBlanc, 2010; Jablonski, McClellan, & Zdziarski, 2008) and sexual assault (Wooten & Mitchell, 2016) to the list.  Another avenue to locating prevention/mitigation scholarship may involve turning to counseling literature such as Penven and Janosik’s (2012) research on threat assessment related to student suicide risk.  Social work approaches to prevention/mitigation have also been recently incorporated into the student affairs discourse on student safety.  For instance, Sharrika, Hazelwood, and Hayden (2014) lay out a compelling argument for incorporating case management as a tool for identifying at-risk students and providing early intervention.



Preparedness scholarship emphasizes the steps an organization must take to strengthen its readiness for emergency conditions, both anticipated and unanticipated (U.S.  Department of Education, Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools, 2010).  Therefore, scholarship related to this branch of emergency management draws attention to policy design, protocol development, resilient infrastructure, and emergency management training.  An example of existing preparedness scholarship in student affairs addresses the preemptive relationships emergency personnel require for effective readiness.  With respect to infrastructure, Stein, Vickio, Fogo, and Abraham (2007) suggest strengthening relationships across student affairs and other campus departments to increase institutional capacity for emergency management overall.

More recent scholarship goes one step further by advocating for student voices in emergency planning efforts on campus (Auletta, 2012; Jackson, 2016).  With respect to training, Molina (2016) and Trahan (2012) suggest that we more carefully interrogate the lessons we impart upon entry-level professionals.  Molina examined the process of socializing entry-level residential life professionals into emergency management responsibilities, while Trahan explored the types of crisis management training included in the curricula of master’s level courses in student affairs preparation programs.  Finally, Farris and McCreight (2014) outlined how the emergency management function within higher education has changed over time and more recently shifted towards becoming a formalized profession.



Response scholarship examines the conditions of critical situations as they unfold, and dynamics related to enacting related responses (U.S.  Department of Education, Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools, 2010).  Because this particular aspect of the emergency environment is often unpredictable and fast-paced, it is one of the more difficult areas to research.  At the same time, it is the branch of emergency management scholarship that can be most strengthened by the perspectives of student affairs practitioners on the front-line.  Therefore, lived experiences play an important role in building our knowledge base about response.

For instance, case studies have been used to examine the evolving conditions surrounding student-centered mental health crises (Van Brunt, Denino, Raleigh, & Issadore, 2015), active shooter scenarios (Eaker & Viars, 2014; Guskey, 2013), and various other emergency scenarios (Engstrom & Mathiesen, 2012; Hancox & Allen, 2007; Shaw & Meaney, 2015).  Lived experiences have also been used to investigate technologies that impact the speed with which response occurs, such as social network media (Asselin, 2012) and mass notification systems (Butler & Lafreniere, 2010).  Related to mass notification systems, Johnson and Frick (2016) examined how generation-based dispositions to crisis potentially shape student reactions to campus emergency alerts.  Finally, research also explores team decision making.  Harper, Paterson, and Zdziarski (2006) question the tension student affairs responders experience between making morally versus procedurally right decisions in the midst of unfolding emergency scenarios.  Similarly, Molina (2010) attempted to elucidate team decision-making among residential life emergency responders, specifically focusing on motivations to follow protocols versus improvising responses around protocol.



Recovery scholarship spans a wide range of activities, experiences, and policies related to transitioning an organization from crisis back to “regular” operations and its stakeholders back to “normal” life (U.S.  Department of Education, Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools, 2010).  From an organizational standpoint, discussions related to this discourse may include business continuity and stabilization.  For instance, restoring operations post-Hurricanes Katrina and -Rita has inspired researchers to reflect deeply on both the student affairs operational and administrative resources necessary for the task (Jarrell, Raymonda, & Martin, 2008; Shaw, 2012, 2016).  From a stakeholder standpoint, research may focus on stakeholders’ physical, psychological, and relational healing.

Organizational or personal healing, learning, and resiliency are topics related to both organizational and human perspectives on emergency recovery.  For example, research posits that the tacit knowledge gained from hands-on emergency management experiences improve related skills among student affairs administrators (Catullo, Walker, & Floyd, 2009; Treadwell, 2017).  Thus, student affairs administrators can often advance their own recovery from crisis by sharing hands-on experiences through case studies (e.g., Bataille & Cordova, 2014).  Moreover, handling crises on-the-job may have long-term effects on leadership, resulting in the development of additional compassion (Treadwell, 2015).



This final phase in the emergency management cycle highlights the importance of applying the information learned in the response and recovery phases back to the planning and mitigation phases.  Essentially, this phase closes the loop of emergency management, making the scholarship produced on all other emergency management phases relevant to this phase as well.  This is the phase where student affairs professionals who are no longer actively managing an unfolding emergency may also take the time to collect and review scholarship that might be useful in the other phases.


Building the Repository of Knowledge to Improve Student Affairs Practice

By adding to the scholarly discourse, we are raising awareness for this increasingly demanding aspect of student affairs work.  In reviewing the emergency management literature related to student affairs, it is quite apparent that there is so much terrain yet to be explored.  As an intellectual exercise, emergency management scholarship challenges student affairs administrators to reflect on the intersecting aspects of their practice ranging from student development to leadership and organizational behavior.  It challenges student affairs educators to apply theories in more robust ways that have consequences for both short-term and long-term success of students.  The existing literature also shows that higher education has only just begun to chip away at the tip of the iceberg.  There is so much gained wisdom our colleagues are gathering in the day-to-day dealings with emergency management.  We need to transform those personal narratives and lived experiences into knowledge that can be shared and generalized.

As noted earlier, we see this trend as we attend ACPA and NASPA, where increasing numbers of administrators are transforming these important lessons into dissertations and conference presentations.  As this special series unfolds over the next several issues of Developments, we encourage you to engage with the topics that will be reviewed, attempt implementing the relevant suggestions into your daily practice, and to seek ways to engage with the Commission for Campus Safety and Emergency Preparedness.  You may follow or reach out to the Commission on Twitter, @ACPA_CCSEP.

Discussion Questions

  1. What sources do you use when seeking out information on emergency management?
  2. What key frameworks do you use to train your staff for emergency management?
  3. What have you learned from a recent emergency management experience that might help fellow administrators to do their jobs better?



Akers, C. R. (2007). Evolution of emergency operations strategies structure and process of crisis response in college student affairs (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from Proquest Dissertations and Theses. (UMI No. 3292920).

Asselin, M. J. (2012). Utilizing social networks in times of crisis: Understanding, exploring and analyzing critical incident management at institutions of higher education. Retrieved from Proquest Dissertations and Theses. (UMI No. 3518565).

Auletta, J. L. (2012). Disaster vulnerability of university student populations (Master’s thesis). Retrieved from Proquest Dissertations and Theses. (UMI No. 1515384).

Bataille, G. M., & Cordova, D. I. (2014). Managing the unthinkable: Crisis preparation and response for campus leaders. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Butler, A. M., & Lafreniere, K. D. (2010). Campus reactions to mass notification. Journal of College Student Development51(4), 436-439.

Catullo, L. A., Walker, D. A., & Floyd, D. L. (2009). The status of crisis management at NASPA member institutions. NASPA Journal, 46(2), 301-324.

Eaker, R., & Viars, J. (2014). Campus crisis response at Viberg College. Journal of Cases in Educational Leadership, 17(4), 86-95.

Engstrom, D., & Mathiesen, S. (2012). Study abroad and an accidental death: Lessons learned. Journal of Social Work Education, 48(4), 785-796.

Farris, D., & McCreight, R. (2014). The professionalization of emergency management in institutions of higher education. Homeland Security & Emergency Management, 11(1), 73-94.

Hancox, M. K. G., & Allen, J. R. (2007). Sins of the father: Revisiting best practices of public relations and crisis management through case study analysis. Journal of School Public Relations, 28, 164-188.

Harper, K. S., Paterson, B. G., & Zdziarski, E. L. (Eds.). (2006). Crisis management: Responding from the heart. Washington, D.C.: NASPA.

Hemphill, B. O., & LeBlanc, B. H. (Eds.). (2010). Enough is enough: A student affairs perspective on preparedness and response to a campus shooting. Washington, D.C.: NASPA.

Jablonski, M. A., McClellan, G. S., & Zdziarski, E. L. (Eds.). (2008). In search of safer communities: Emerging practices for student affairs in addressing campus violence. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Jackson, R. A. (2016). An investigation into hazard mitigation tools at institutions of higher education. (Master’s thesis). Retrieved from Proquest Dissertations and Theses. (UMI No. 10117122).

Jarrell, C., Raymonda, D., & Marian, J. (2008). Academic and student affairs issues post Hurricane Katrina. Community College Journal of Research and Practice, 32(3), 235-250.

Johnson, L. A. (2007). The great comeback: A comparative analysis of disaster recovery actions in higher education. (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses database. (UMI No. 3255882).

Johnson, T. C., & Frick, M. H. (2016). Investigation of millennial students’ responses to a shelter-in-place experience. Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice, 53(4), 444-457.

Kennedy, M. (2011, June 1). School security after 9/11: The security improvements that schools and universities have embraced in the aftermath of Sept. 11 and other tragedies are keeping campuses safer. American School & University. Retrieved from

Maitlis, S., & Sonenshein, S. (2010). Sensemaking in crisis and change: Inspiration and insights from Weick (1988). Journal of Management Studies, 47(3), 551-580.

Miller, T. E., & Sorochty, R. W. (2015). Risk management in student affairs: Foundations for safety and success. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Molina, D. K. (2010). Sensemaking as a trigger for change in university emergency response routines: Ethnographic and case study analysis of a residential life department. (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from Proquest Dissertations and Theses. (UMI No.763597970).

Molina, D. K. (2016). On becoming Batman: An ethnographic examination of hero imagery in RA sensemaking about emergency management. Journal of College and University Student Housing, 42(3), 98-111.

Myer, R. A., James, R. K., & Moulton, P. (2011). This is not a fire drill: Crisis intervention and prevention on college campuses. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley & Sons.

Penven, J. C., & Janosik, S. M. (2012). Threat assessment teams: A model for coordinating the institutional response and reducing legal liability when college students threaten suicide. Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice, 49(3), 299-314.

Sharrika, A., Hazelwood, S., & Hayden, B. (2014). Student affairs case management: Merging social work theory with student affairs practice. Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice, 51(4), 446-458.

Shaw, M. D. (2012). Crisis begets change: Hurricane recovery at Gulf Coast institutions. (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from Proquest Dissertations and Theses. (UMI No. 1287137594).

Shaw, M. D. (2016). Organizational change as a function of disaster recovery: Lessons from Gulf Coast institutions.  College Student Affairs Journal, 34(3), 62-75.

Shaw, M., & Meaney, S. (2015). Gang activity on campus: A crisis response case study. Journal of Cases in Educational Leadership, 18(4), 365-373.

Stein, C. H., Vickio, C. J., Fogo, W. R., & Abraham, K. M. (2007). Making connections: A network approach to university disaster preparedness. Journal of College Student Development, 48(3), 331-343.

Trahan, L. L. (2012). An exploratory study of crisis management and disaster mental health training in master’s-level student affairs preparation programs. (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from:

Treadwell, K. (2015). Compassionate complexity: Learning on the frontlines of campus tragedy. About Campus, 20(5), 14-20.

Treadwell, K. (2017). Learning from tragedy: Student affairs leadership following college campus disasters. Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice, 54(1), 42-54.

  1. S. Department of Education, Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools. (2010). Action guide for emergency management at institutions of higher ed­ucation (Publication no. ED-04-C0-009). Wash­ington, D.C.: Author.

Van Brunt, B., Denino, D., Raleigh, M.J., and Issadore, M. (Eds.). (2015). The prevention and management of mental health emergencies: Fifteen scenarios for student affairs professionals. Berwyn, PA: National Intervention Behavior Team Association.

Wooten, S. C., & Mitchell, R. W. (2016). The crisis of campus sexual violence: Critical perspectives on prevention and response. New York, NY: Routledge.

Zdziarski, E. L., Rollo, J. M., Dunkel, N. W., & Associates (2007). Campus crisis management: A comprehensive guide to planning, prevention, response, and recovery. San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass.


Other sources

Palmer, C. (2010). Keys to campus safety: Collaboration, assessment, and training. Student Affairs Leader, 38(4), 5.

Sandeen, A., & Barr, M. J. (2007). Eight action steps for student affairs to consider. Student Affairs Leader, 35(10), 7-8.


About the Authors

Dr.  Danielle K. Molina is an Assistant Professor of Student Affairs at Mississippi State University, and Dr. Mahauganee D. Shaw Bonds is an independent researcher and consultant..  Drawing upon past administrative experiences in residential life and campus activities, respectively, they share a common research agenda exploring different facets of emergency management in student affairs and higher education.  Drs. Molina and Shaw Bonds have presented their research on emergency management independently, and together, at conferences such as ACPA, NASPA, SACSA, ASHE, SCUP, and AERA.  They previously served as the Co-Vice Chairs for Research, Scholarship and Practice on the ACPA Commission for Campus Safety and Emergency Preparedness. 

Please e-mail inquiries to Dr. Danielle K. Molina or Dr. Mahauganee D. Shaw Bonds.



The ideas expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of ACPA members or the ACPA Governing Board, Leadership, or International Office Staff.

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