What higher ed leaders should do when a scandal hits their campus
Colleges' actions increasingly under the microscope, recent missteps by campuses on sexual misconduct, racism and other issues show why a crisis communication plan is key.
In the age of social media, scandals on college campuses can erupt within seconds. And when that happens, college leaders should be prepared to act quickly to stem a growing crisis, all while under the microscope of the press and their own students.
Missteps in those moments can have far-reaching repercussions. In the last year alone, several college presidents and other leaders have stepped down from their roles amid controversies on campus.
At Michigan State University, for instance, the former president and her interim successor resigned after various stakeholders widely panned their responses to a massive sexual misconduct scandal. Meanwhile, the chancellor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill resigned last month amid rising tensions over what to do about a Confederate statue on campus.
Such incidents have put a spotlight on the growing importance of crisis management skills for higher ed leaders. Incoming and current college officials should take note of the lessons they teach about what to do — and what not do — to recover from a scandal on campus.
"If you're a major university and you've got 30,000 students and 10,000 faculty and staff and 150 buildings, something is going to go wrong," said Terry Hartle, a senior vice president at the American Council on Education. "It's not a question of if, it's a question of when."
'We've made mistakes'
Michigan State and the University of Southern California (USC) are both grappling with how to restore their reputations in the wake of massive sexual abuse scandals.
At USC, hundreds of women have come forward claiming longtime campus gynecologist George Tyndall made lewd remarks, took inappropriate photos during exams and sexually abused them under the guise of medical treatment. USC has since settled with the victims for $215 million and is looking for a new leader after former President C.L. Max Nikias stepped down under pressure to resign amid accusations his administration mishandled claims against Tyndall.
Meanwhile, Michigan State is dealing with the continued fallout over Larry Nassar, a former university sports doctor who sexually abused hundreds of female athletes over his decades-long career. Like USC, the university has settled with the victims for a hefty sum, in this case $500 million.
Michigan State has struggled to make inroads on a possible path to redemption. Instead, ex-President Lou Anna Simon is facing charges of lying to police; the state attorney general's office has accused campus officials of stonewalling an investigation into its response to allegations against Nassar; and the U.S. Department of Education said the university has repeatedly violated the Clery Act.
"It's fair to say that from a crisis-management standpoint that Michigan State has learned a lot through the past couple of years from things we have not handled well," said university spokesperson Emily Guerrant. "We know we've made mistakes ... and we're trying to be better."
Though both colleges hope to chart a path forward, they must first deal with fierce accusations that administrators looked the other way in the face of sexual abuse and have done more to protect the university's brand than its students.
In USC's case, officials kept Tyndall in his position for years even though complaints from students and staff about his behavior date back to the 1990s. And at MSU, at least 14 current and former university officials knew about Nassar's conduct in the two decades before his 2016 arrest, according to a Detroit News investigation.
Transparency is critical.
Jeff Hunt, a communications expert who was hired by Penn State to help restore its reputation in the aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, says one of the most important steps a university can take is to get to the bottom of what happened — regardless of its legal culpability.
"You have to assume that everything is discoverable," Hunt said. "Your best bet is to be as transparent as possible as early as possible because that gives you the best opportunity to put the narrative in your terms."
Penn State hired former FBI director Louis Freeh to investigate what happened. "The mere act of bringing him in demonstrated an authentic and transparent response to the crisis," Hunt said.
Freeh's damning report landed only three weeks after Sandusky was convicted. It alleged the university's head football coach, Joe Paterno, along with three other campus officials, covered up knowledge that Sandusky molested children, including in the university's locker rooms, in order to protect the college's reputation.
Hunt credits Penn State's quick action to investigate the matter as one of the reasons it has been able to move past some of the reputational damage it sustained. (After a small dip in enrollment in 2012, the university enjoyed continued growth in the years after the crisis.)
Neither Michigan State nor USC has released findings from a similar probe, though both face accusations that high-level officials didn't sufficiently respond when confronted with sexual abuse allegations.
Michigan State hired a legal team in 2017 to conduct an internal review — a setup critics say was far from the independent investigation the public had called for and meant mostly to protect the university from litigation. The team's findings were never publicly released, but the former federal prosecutor leading the inquiry wrote that university officials weren't aware of Nassar's behavior until the press reported the victims' stories.
Guerrant noted that several current investigations into the university, including those by the U.S. Department of Education and the Michigan attorney general's office, may result in public findings.
USC, meanwhile, hired a law firm to launch an independent investigation into the student health center but has not yet completed it, according to its website. As it did with Michigan State, the Ed Department has launched an investigation into USC's handling of the sexual abuse allegations.
Colleges can also restore trust by making moves to ensure similar abuses won't happen again, both within and outside the college, Hunt said. For instance, Penn State established its Child Maltreatment Solutions Network to support research into the prevention of child abuse.
"They need to remind people where and when they held people accountable (and) what the accountability looked like," Hunt said. "Then they need to proactively talk about what they're doing on the campus and more broadly to prevent it from happening again."
Michigan State nearly doubled its Title IX employees, added more oversight of its health care and directed more resources to mental health services. Additionally, Michigan State Police Department Detective Lt. Andrea Munford, who led the investigation into Nassar, has traveled around the country to teach other police units how to take a trauma-informed approach to sexual assault investigations.
The university may also be able to make more progress now that it is under new leadership.
While the former interim president, John Engler, made comments that cast doubt on the victims' motives for coming forward, his replacement, Satish Udpa, has apologized to the victims, saying that the institution was "too slow" to grasp the situation.
"A lot of changes were made (under Engler), but the tone and approach that he had specifically toward survivors was criticized," Guerrant said. "We're continuing a lot of those policy changes now, but the tone is definitely different (with Udpa's) openness to want to work with the survivor community and their families to identify other areas that still should be changed or addressed at Michigan State."
Meanwhile, USC streamlined the process for students to file complaints, hired two female gynecologists and will have added 12 therapists between the 2018-19 and 2019-20 academic years.
Without swift action to address a battered reputation, it's no sure thing a university can rebound on brand equity alone. "They could lose their competitive advantage, if not permanently, for a long time," Hunt said.
Beyond the task force
The University of Maryland is also attempting to recover from a severe hit to its reputation, though for different reasons. In the past few years, the university has weathered several scandals, including two student deaths that rocked the campus community and spurred student protests.
Though the death of a 19-year-old student football player from heatstroke last June garnered national attention — and led to the departures of the head football coach and the strength and conditioning coach, as well as the announced retirement of President Wallace Loh — tensions on the university's campus were rising well before then.
In 2017, a black student visiting from another university was fatally stabbed near a bus stop on U of Maryland's campus. Police later charged a U of Maryland student with the murder, which is being tried as a hate crime after investigators scoured his digital devices and social media activity for evidence of a motive.
As the campus community attempted to heal, the university dealt with other incidents of intolerance. Among them, a noose was discovered in a fraternity house just weeks before the death, a swastika and anti-LGBTQ comments were found in dorms, and the counseling center came under fire for offering a support group for white students to discuss race.
Though U of Maryland's circumstances are unique, the flagship university and others in a similar position can look to lessons the University of Missouri learned from its student protests over racial issues in 2015.
Last year, researchers who studied the university's response released a report on what college leaders should do to adequately respond to racist incidents on campus.
Adrianna Kezar, who co-led the research project, said one common mistake is for university leaders to become defensive rather than take responsibility for a racist incident that happened on their campus. "They try to be secretive and put things on lockdown rather than being open," she said. "That creates a cycle of distrust."
U of Maryland has been accused of doing such. Although the institution closed the case about the noose and referred someone for disciplinary action, it decided against disclosing the outcome of the case, a choice some students said left them feeling unsafe, according to The Diamondback, the university's independent student newspaper.
The college created a webpage to better inform the campus community of the actions it has taken in the wake of the fatal stabbing. They include partnering with the Anti-Defamation League and streamlining the university's process for responding to hate-bias incidents.
The researchers also advise college leaders away from simply launching a task force and writing a report with recommendations. As with other universities, this was one of several actions U of Maryland undertook after the stabbing death on its campus.
"If you're a major university and you've got 30,000 students and 10,000 faculty and staff and 150 buildings, something is going to go wrong. It's not a question of if, it's a question of when."
Senior vice president, American Council on Education
Though task forces can complement other actions leaders take, Kezar said, it isn't the type of authentic engagement students need following a racist incident. "The leaders need to engage the emotional responses of the campus," she said. "(Task forces) don't help people process anger and pain and hurt and distress. That all stays."
Most importantly, colleges should ensure they have the capacity to support diversity and inclusion before a racist incident happens, Kezar said. Colleges will be better equipped for a race-related crisis if they have a diversity and inclusion plan, pre-existing relationships with student activists and other stakeholders, and ongoing assessments of the campus climate.
The stakes are high for how campuses deal with such issues. In the two years following the protests at U of Missouri, freshmen enrollment at the system's flagship campus plummeted by 35%. To make up for a steep budget shortfall partly stemming from the lost tuition revenue, the university had to eliminate hundreds positions, among other cuts.
Since then, the university's enrollment has partially rebounded. But Hunt said colleges can face long-term consequences beyond a hit to enrollment. Other campuses may gain a competitive advantage over institutions in crisis by scooping up their potential faculty hires and student-athlete recruits.
U of Maryland has had a taste of such repercussions. After the fatal stabbing, its black freshman enrollment dropped to an eight-year low last fall. Further, the chairman of the university's fundraising arm said the actions the system's board took in the aftermath of its athletic scandal may have dealt a "fatal blow" to its $1.5 billion capital campaign.
It remains to be seen if and how U of Maryland will recover, a task that will largely fall on its incoming president's shoulders. That, however, has been postponed now that Loh said he will stay on until 2020 to ensure a smooth transition of power after he originally announced he would retire in June.
Steward of the brand
College leaders wrestling with what to do in a crisis can look beyond the examples offered by other higher ed institutions. Lynn Pasquerella, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, points to two companies she says have handled scandals well in recent years: Starbucks and The Walt Disney Co.
Last year, Starbucks came under fire after a manager at one of its Philadelphia locations called police on two black men after they declined to leave the store. In response to the incident, Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson apologized and shut down all of the coffee chain's U.S. locations for an afternoon a little over a month later to put some 175,000 staff members through mandatory anti-bias training.
And in 2016, Disney officials swiftly offered remorse to the family of a 2-year-old boy who died from an alligator attack at the company's amusement park in Orlando, Florida. The company also erected a monument in his honor and put up more signs warning guests of danger.
"They didn't just disavow responsibility or blame the parents," Pasquerella said. "They took responsibility, they worked with the family, they worked with the community and they engaged in restitution in ways that were meaningful."
"It's a new day and these public institutions are under intense scrutiny from the outside and from the inside. They really need to have a culture where they're studying other people's crises ... because, but by the grace of God, it's not on your campus yet, but it could be tomorrow."
Crisis communications expert
Hunt agrees that university leaders should be looking toward large companies for guidance, especially now that college presidents are under the same microscope that some CEOs are.
"It's high time university presidents adopt that same mindset: I'm the steward of this brand, and that means I better anticipate anything that can cause harm to our reputation," Hunt said.
Part of this shift is driven by greater visibility of campus leaders' actions due to the rise of social media. Many college scandals, including the U of Missouri protests, were amplified by Twitter and other social media platforms.
"It's a new day and these public institutions are under intense scrutiny from the outside and from the inside," Hunt said. "They really need to have a culture where they're studying other people's crises ... because, but by the grace of God, it's not on your campus yet, but it could be tomorrow."
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