They Will Listen: Six Ideas for Talking Population-Level Prevention Training with Your Leaders


Campus prevention practitioners can play a crucial role in persuading their institutions to pursue technology-based, population level, prevention training to campus leaders. This pivotal moment for higher education is a prime opportunity to advance campus prevention efforts by focusing senior leadership on the need for effective, point of the spear prevention efforts. Even if you have spent considerable time and effort trying to elevate your institution’s focus on prevention with limited success in the past, the current higher education climate presents a unique opportunity to foster transformational progress.

COVID-19 has forced institutions of higher learning to appreciate the greater potential of prevention. The pandemic has compounded pre-pandemic challenges, including student mental health and wellness issues, discrimination, sexual violence, and substance misuse. Schools facing unprecedented enrollment management, budgeting, and legal compliance struggles now must embrace public health approaches and prevention to survive and thrive. You, the campus prevention practitioner, have the operational knowledge and experience needed to guide institutional leaders when making strategic decisions about safety, well-being, and inclusion. Perhaps the single most important strategic prevention decision: how to leverage population-level training to meet the challenges campuses face. 

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How do you effectively bring the need for longitudinal commitment to technology-based, population-level prevention training to leadership's attention? How do you elevate the visibility and value of your work to the highest levels of your institution? 

These six ideas might help.

1. Create and sustain a network of campus partners to both help you communicate prevention needs to senior campus leadership, and review training provider options

Selecting and implementing a training provider is a significant institutional decision requiring due diligence, and should not be driven entirely by price or a single decision-maker. Selecting the most effective training provider for your campus will require input from many stakeholders at your institution. Initiate these conversations as strategically and as early as possible, and try not to delay due diligence efforts in ways that require time-forced decision-making (e.g., training vendor contract is up in 30 days for renewal). Initiating preliminary meetings with operational leadership (e.g., associate deans, department heads, Title IX, human resources and student conduct directors) is a good starting point to lead up to cabinet level decision-making. Your institution’s most senior leaders and cabinet are more likely to be persuaded by collective operational-level agreement on the most desirable, well-vetted approaches for population-level prevention training

Use your network to your advantage when navigating your pitch to senior leadership. Perhaps an associate vice president of institutional advancement knows alumni who are eager to support inclusion and diversity efforts. Residence life directors and academic advisors may be eager to increase access to mental health services and improve interventions -- some students seek counseling but actually need other services. 

2. Lead your network to make decisions and frame conversations with decision-based options

What training programs produce proven quantifiable outcomes? What training providers best serve our school's specific needs? What technology-based training can be delivered virtually, maintain efficacy, and sustain student engagement? Your goal is to improve the efficacy of your network, not dissipate energy in meetings with no demonstrable outcomes. This approach has the advantage of packaging up the work of the network to senior administration. Example: “The network considered the following questions and offers the following answers.”

3. Speak the language of ‘budget’ when communicating with your leaders

President Biden once famously quipped: “Don't tell me what you value, show me your budget, and I'll tell you what you value.” This maxim is true in government and in higher education. Simply put, budgets signal institutional interests and priorities, but also reflect compromises, concerns, and constraints. To make a successful case for increased investment in prevention, you will need to demonstrate how prevention training will align with and further those interests, while alleviating relevant concerns. Put differently, if you translate prevention efforts into an investment your institution cannot afford to pass on, leaders will listen.

You have a powerful budget argument: prevention training is one of the soundest investments your institution can make. For instance, through their Sexual Assault Diagnostic Inventory (SADI) --a research-based tool used to assess campus prevention strategies--Vector Solutions (formerly Everfi's Campus Prevention Network) has found that as an institution’s SADI score increased by a modest three points, first--year student retention rates increased by one percent, and the four-year graduation rate increased by 2.5 percent.

Download the Sexual Assault Diagnostic Inventory (SADI) >

Though this may seem at first like a modest return on investment, the aggregate long-term benefit is surprising when quantified. An institution that has 2,500 students, at $2 per student for training, could retain 400 students, which could translate into $23 million in tuition revenue according to researchers at the Healthy Minds Network. These benefits, articulated in Vector's publication “The ROI of Prevention: Setting the Tone for the Future of Your Institution,'' can be achieved by investing in evidence-based prevention training. As these figures demonstrate, prevention is not simply a compliance requirement and luxury investment; rather, it is an investment in achieving strategic budget and enrollment objectives. 

After prevention training is deployed, provide executive data summaries of the programs’ impact along with insights on critical campus culture issues. Your training provider should make this data both easily accessible and translatable for sharing with senior leaders; you are looking for a relationship with your training provider and a training provider that understands your needs and goals. You may also offer to facilitate semesterly, semi-annual, or annual reviews of training outcomes based on institution-specific data and senior leaders’ goals. Ask leaders about any additional focus areas they will want to include in custom survey questions -- a technology must-have for campuses committed to data-driven decision-making. Sustaining prevention training efforts long-term will be more likely if administrators understand the value these programs deliver and take some ownership in the collection of data. Senior leaders are often unaware of the precision that some prevention tools now offer in assessing dimensions of campus strategic activity. Choose training providers who create opportunities for you to customize their products to your unique campus environment and brand.

4. Continue to reinforce the benefit of prevention in meeting key institutional priorities after senior leaders choose to make the investment

The success of any prevention program will be dependent on stakeholder engagement and stakeholder perceptions of efficacy. Promote stakeholder engagement through, for example, encouraging residence life staff members to host activities and events that reinforce key prevention training messages.

Student affairs administrators might consider offering participation incentives, and the institution's communication team might reinforce training messages via social media channels, podcasts, electronic messaging boards, or other outlets. Student organizations might promote engagement with population level training via intra-organization competitions or incentives for high member completion rates for certain organizations. Academic advisors could consider how to integrate prevention training completion, appropriately of course, as a part of their advising conversations. Faculty can be very influential using prevention curriculum infusion when properly guided by prevention practitioners; they are also critical influencers for purposes of increasing participation rates in population-level training. 

5. Highlight the link between diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts with prevention training, and how both support overall safety and student well-being

Racial injustice is inextricably connected to other types of risks students experience such as sexual assault, alcohol and drug related harms, and mental health challenges. Your campus leaders likely will be more focused than ever on DEI efforts in the current higher education climate.

In response to increasing pressure to address racial injustice, bias, and discrimination, many higher education institutional leaders have announced ambitious DEI strategic initiatives and committed resources to supporting this important work. This is the time to demonstrate to senior leadership that comprehensive prevention training supports an institution’s DEI efforts . As exemplified by insights from Vector Solutions and quoted in research from the Century Foundation, DEI efforts improve the “intellectual engagement, self-motivation, citizenship, and cultural engagement, and academic skills … for students of all races. Interacting with diverse peers outside a classroom setting directly benefits students, making them better scholars, thinkers, and citizens.” Prevention efforts support these learning outcomes, and may be foundational to achieving them.

Your goal is to convey two key learning outcomes to your senior leaders:

  1. DEI and prevention goals are symbiotic
  2. Population-level prevention training will produce positive DEI outcomes on your campus

6. Ask campus leaders to contribute their voices and presence to prevention programming and leverage their power as influencers

Prevention science demonstrates that visible and vocal senior leader participation promotes campus-wide engagement and sends a clear message that prevention training is a priority. There is nothing more impactful than commitment from senior leadership -- engaging personally in training by, for example, introducing the training and then remaining present and actively listening and contributing. Although it may be challenging to get this kind of time and energy commitment from senior leadership, it is invaluable.

In an online training format, senior leaders can reach an even broader cohort of their community. Try this: embed videos that feature campus leaders or include welcome letters or other introductory text that makes it clear this issue is important to those leaders. Insist that your training vendor offer you state of the art options to create online training programs that include campus-specific content and customizations; be sure to consider this feature when choosing a provider.   

Your prevention expertise has never been more crucial to your campus community; you are the most knowledgeable person to elevate the need for scalable, evidence-based prevention training to your school's leaders’ attention. When choosing to deliver prevention education online, form a diversified campus-wide network of partners and select a training technology partner that aligns with your institution’s goals and priorities -- and demand customizable services from a vendor who understands the role of partner in accomplishing strategic institutional objectives. Speak the language of “budget” and highlight the potential for positive enrollment, retention, and return on investment outcomes.

Assessment of training efficacy is critical; deliver personalized reports of program data to leadership regularly. Proactively mobilize your network and work to encourage student, staff, and faculty participation in the training process so as to maximize the benefits of population-level training, and to incentivize longitudinal commitment to a prevention culture by leaders. Highlight the symbiosis of prevention training and DEI work. To the extent practicable, engage campus leaders in personalized training services that foster a campus-wide understanding that prevention training is valued and valuable.

Your campus awaits your choice to communicate strategically about the opportunities for population-level training, wherever your institution has evolved to in its commitment to prevention as a strategic goal. Good luck, and remember, the evidence is there to support you! 

Peter Lake is a Professor of Law, Charles A. Dana Chair, and Director of the Center for Excellence in Higher Education Law and Policy at Stetson University. He is an internationally-recognized expert on higher education law and policy and has been quoted or referred to in hundreds of media publications and court opinions throughout the United States.

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