Michigan State University. University of Rochester. Penn State University. What do they have in common? Scandal. Whether performed by the students or the faculty, these universities, along with many others, have been plagued by scandal.
Unfortunately to no surprise, sexual misconduct is pertinent across college campuses. And the scariest part? Most of the perpetrators are faculty members. With the recent sentencing of Larry Nassar, the conversation surrounding higher education and crisis communication has resurfaced. So, how do universities such as Michigan State handle this type of scandal?
A Tale of Two Men
The story of Larry Nassar is vaguely familiar. The events are an unfortunate reiteration of the Jerry Sandusky scandal. Both events had two men in power, and they abused it. Football players at Penn State University approached Sandusky for guidance just as gymnasts at Michigan State University sought Nassar for help. The two men preyed on this vulnerability.
However, this post is not meant to focus on these two perpetrators. They already receive too much attention for their atrocious actions. The focus of this entry is a university’s part in the development of these scandals.
The Role of the University
The main responsibility of a university is to care for its students. Right? With recent events, one can argue that the university is unable to protect them.
CNN video on the sentencing of Larry Nassar
In court, women testifying against Nassar said that they reported their abuse to Michigan State officials. However, similar to most assault cases, these women were silenced. In fact, after a Title IX investigation, Michigan State officials concluded Nassar’s methods were medically appropriate.
The Old Main Building at Penn State University (Source: Penn State Board of Trustees)
Similarly, Penn State officials knew of Sandusky’s abuse. Emails from 2012 between the university’s president, athletic director and vice president discussed alleged abuse by Sandusky. The three agreed not to contact police. Even respected coach Joe Paterno allegedly knew of this sexual abuse.
In both of these cases, the universities failed to perform its most basic responsibility. Instead of protecting the students from this abuse, the schools sided with the faculty who continued to take advantage of students for decades.
A Punishment to Fit the Crime
More than 80 women gave statements at Nassar’s sentencing. Meanwhile, Michigan State University President Lou Anna Simon continued her job. Trustee Mitch Lyons asked for Simon to step down in order to let the healing process begin. The board was divided; some trustees wanted Simon to continue her role as president.
This divide is just another example of how not to handle this type of crisis. The board needed to present a united front. Four days later, Simon resigned after ongoing pressure. She vehemently denied a cover up. However, her resignation did begin a healing process on campus just as Lyons had suggested.
At the University of Rochester, reports of misconduct were filed against professor Dr. T. Florian Jaeger. The reports suggested that the administrative staff knew. However, an outside investigation proved the administration, including the president never knew of the allegations. Before the results of the investigation were released, University of Rochester President Joel Seligman stepped down. Seligman marked himself as guilty before anyone had the opportunity to prove his innocence.
Out with the Old, In with the New
Seligman’s resignation, though unnecessary, may have helped the reputation of the university. In Seligman’s words, his resignation allowed the university to have a “fresh start under a new leader.” Often times, this new start is what a university needs to rebound after a scandal. A new set of leaders suggests that the university is attempting to move on from its wrongdoings without completing forgetting its unfortunate past.
Though university leaders should not take blame for the wrongdoings of perpetrators such as Sandusky, Nassar or Jaeger, their actions after a scandal play a pivotal role in crisis communication. Whether they choose to remain in power or step down shapes the narrative on how the university is portrayed. As Gary Vaynerchuk explains in "Jab, Jab, Jab, Right Hook," the way an organization tells its story is incredibly important. Therefore, a university must think carefully before making any drastic decisions.
As demonstrated by these examples, there is no cookie cutter way of how to deal with a crisis.
Instead of explaining how to handle a scandal, it is easier to explain how not to deal with a crisis. Higher education institutions can learn from the events at Michigan State University, Penn State University and University of Rochester. Though there is no ten step guide on how to handle these situations one thing is for certain. In any scandal, the university must perform its main responsibility: to care for its students.