Updated Dec. 15, 2021
The death of a student, or that of a faculty or staff member, is often extremely upsetting for individuals in our University community. Effective and considerate communication can help inform others about a death and next steps the family or community are taking; it also ensures that members of the University community are aware of the resources available to them to process their grief.
When a student, faculty or staff member's death occurs, the University does not generally issue a formal communication at the system level. In some instances, the main campus communications office may offer specific information publicly about an individual’s relationship to the University (e.g., a student’s enrollment status) or police-related details involving an on-campus incident, but that would occur in close consultation with state and federal privacy laws.
In most cases, communication will occur at the local level (e.g., a department, college, or in some cases, a campus). Local leaders and communicators should carefully consider the following guiding principles to determine if, when, and how to communicate a sensitive matter, such as a death. Your campus’ central communications team is available to provide counsel as you navigate this difficult issue.
This checklist provides general guidance for leaders and communicators to help ensure consistency in messaging. It is meant to be adaptable to the unique needs of each situation.
- Consider the reasons to communicate the news on a need-to-know basis (beyond the HR or student process that typically occurs): Has the leadership of the employee’s team or unit been informed? How well known was this person among peers and colleagues? Are rumors surfacing as people notice the individual is absent? Is the death expected to be broadly public beyond a standard obituary? What is the culture of your unit/college/campus, and how would a communication like this fit into that culture?
- Consider your previous approaches to communicating about those who have passed away. Utilizing a consistent response process is important because recognizing some deaths and not others may be perceived as favoritism. Ultimately, however, the level of communication and message may differ from case to case based on family preferences or other factors.
- Determine who is the necessary audience for a message. In considering the audience, start small, with individuals most directly connected to the deceased individual. To what extent should communication occur more broadly across a program, department, college, or campus? Remember, you can always broaden the audience but cannot pull back a message that was too broadly distributed at the start.
- Determine what level of information should be communicated. Is the message very general, communicating simply that a member of our community has passed away and that resources and support are available to those affected? Or will the message contain any personal or memorial information about the deceased? If any specific information will be provided, it is imperative that the family has granted permission to share personal details, such as funeral arrangements or cause of death. Each family will have a different level of tolerance for communication. Some will welcome it as a show of support for their loved ones, while others may experience added stress from a broad communication.
- For a student death, contact your campus student affairs office, which is often responsible for initiating and managing notifications and family interactions. In some instances, you may even be the first to become aware of the death. The Office for Student Affairs on the Twin Cities campus also has additional resources.
- To the extent possible, designate one point of contact with the family or close friend.
- Tell people face-to-face whenever possible, and focus on supporting colleagues of the deceased individual. For example, the person's direct supervisor may call colleagues or the team together to share the news, whether in-person or via Zoom.
- When communicating, provide information about mental health support through the Employee Assistance Program for faculty and staff along with mental health resources for students (organized by campus below):
- While general links to resources are important, they may not be enough for individuals needing support. Consider scheduling specific counselor hours and open sessions, depending on local needs, and then communicate them to your community in addition to general resource links.
- Overall, the tone of any communication should be warm, empathetic, supportive, and genuine.
- University Relations on the Twin Cities campus or your campus marketing/communication office rarely provides media comment on a student death unless it's already very public.
- In other circumstances where news media have reached out, one option is to steer a reporter to a friend or colleague in the college or program, who can potentially focus on providing personal remarks, rather than issuing an institutional response. To facilitate this while protecting privacy and allowing family and friends to decide how to proceed, we recommend taking a news reporter’s information and offering to share it with potential contacts versus providing a reporter with others’ contact information.
- In some circumstances, notable faculty or staff may become the subject of a news obituary in a larger publication, such as the Star Tribune. In this case, the Twin Cities University Relations PR team or your campus’ marketing/communication office can help determine whether a news obituary is appropriate and how to proceed.
The below email is a Twin Cities example of an email sent to University offices that need to know about a death and/or would have interacted with the student (e.g., their college, campus student organizations, Financial Aid, HR, campus student government, counseling centers, etc.). Similar communications would be shared with University leadership (e.g., the President, Provost, VPs, University Senate, UR, etc.). The purpose is to inform offices to update records related to the student and/or offer support to the student's peers. On many of our campuses, student affairs offices manage this process.
Attached is a Notification of Student Death for [Name] (ID# xxx), a [college] [undergraduate/graduate/Ph.D. student] last registered in [semester]. [Name] was enrolled in the [title] program on the [X} campus. There is no public information available on his death at this time.
If the college or campus hosts an annual remembrance service, keep in mind that family members and friends are invited to attend.
Faculty and Staff
Communications about a faculty or staff death are generally initiated by the employee’s local HR staff. A case manager in OHR will work with the family or the legal representative to coordinate the employee’s final paycheck, vacation payout and benefits, and serve as a resource. The family can reach out to email@example.com or call 612-624-8647 or 800-756-2363. OHR’s process for the death of an employee may also be helpful.
In addition, there are administrative functions to consider, such as removing the deceased individual from email and distribution lists or archiving their directory listings, if applicable.
If you have further questions, please reach out:
- Student Affairs Offices:
- Office of Human Resources:
- Counsel and Support:
- Employee Assistance Program for faculty and staff systemwide: (612) 624-8647 or (800) 756-2363, firstname.lastname@example.org
- For students:
- Crookston: (218) 281-8571 or (218) 281-8348, email@example.com
- Duluth: (218) 726-7913, firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
- Morris: (320) 589-6060, firstname.lastname@example.org
- Rochester: (507) 258-8017, email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
- Twin Cities:
- University Relations: