Date of Award

Fall 12-2020

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Educational Foundations & Leadership


Higher Education

Committee Director

Dennis E. Gregory

Committee Member

Mitchell R. Williams

Committee Member

David C. Earnest


In the wake of the 2007 Virginia Tech tragedy, the Virginia state legislature mandated that all college-affiliated institutions create an operational safety plan for natural and manmade crises. Previous empirical research has mostly focused on documenting faculty and students’ perceptions of campus safety, preparations for manmade crises over natural disasters, and enhancing specific aspects of emergency responses for future incidents. Thus, design and implementation “best practices” for higher education operational safety plan protocols is an understudied, yet burgeoning area of inquiry. To address this literature gap, a comparative case study of five institutions was conducted using a novel document analysis protocol and interviews to analyze current operational safety plans through the lenses of open systems, rational choice, and chaos theories. Data revealed three guiding principles for design, four factors identified for successful implementation, and five candidate “best practices,” which aligned with the training, emergency threat assessment, emergency management, resources, communication and coordination protocol themes. A practical implication from this study was that the selected institutions placed more attention on operational safety plan response elements than on preparation components, which may mean less than optimal plan execution. Moreover, a significant theoretical implication was the discovery that emergency managers rationalized their operational safety plan decisions based on perceived costs and benefits, which may deprive these plans of the most up-to-date, peer reviewed information. Future studies will contribute additional novel practical and theoretical guidance regarding the essential components for effective operational safety planning that would increase the capability of senior administrators and campus safety personnel to manage risks associated with emergency disasters.