Following the admissions scandals at some of the nation’s most highly-regarded universities, including allegations that athletic coaches received payments to admit students who had little or no experience, the universities took many of the right steps that a crisis consultant would recommend. They apologized and called for outside investigations, suspended or terminated both coaches and admissions officers and committed to changing their processes.
But now that they have weathered the immediate crisis, the universities must repair the reputational damage that these scandals have caused. It is not enough for them to consider this issue behind them, especially in this social media era where negative information dwells forever.
As they work to restore their reputations, they should consider the following actions:
- Maintain a commitment to openness and transparency. Universities, particularly the schools caught in this scandal, tend to be very private, especially when it comes to admissions. This scandal has shed a light on the process and, rather than claim they have “fixed” the problem, they must deliver on a commitment to transparency, even agreeing to make any investigative reports public, to the extent permitted by law.
- Inform and involve stakeholders. Students, staff, faculty and alumni can be influential advocates for the university among peers and colleagues. Too often in a crisis, universities fail to keep these constituencies informed about the university’s position and ongoing developments. As a result, these advocates don’t have sufficient information to support the university’s efforts. And, unlike a corporate response which can be tightly controlled, members of the university community will freely criticize the university if they are misinformed or don’t know or understand the university’s response.
- Monitor litigation and be prepared to comment. Developments may occur in civil or criminal cases arising from this scandal. While the universities may not be parties to any litigation, they will no doubt receive media inquiries as the cases move forward. They should be prepared to comment about the issue and describe remedial steps that have been taken rather than refraining to comment because they are not involved. The key is to be prepared to comment and, after consulting with counsel, deciding whether to comment.
- Consider making major personnel changes. The incidents to date have largely involved coaches of minor sports and admissions officers. In considering the response, the university should take disciplinary action not only against the individuals directly involved, but those who had supervisory authority over them. The adage “the buck stops here” may apply to those who knew or should have known what was going on.
- Reach out directly to guidance counselors. According to reports, many high school guidance counselors were frustrated by the process as they saw students they were counseling admitted to schools for which they were neither academically nor athletically qualified. The universities should reach out to these counselors directly to apologize for what happened and to demonstrate their commitment to change. They could even consider involving the guidance counselors in helping design a process going forward.
- Promote school diversity and diversity initiatives. Although apparently not the case, there may be a perception that the admission of these students was at the expense of minority students, who otherwise would have been admitted or receive scholarships. Schools should seek to dispel this misperception and use this crisis as an opportunity to review and enhance their diversity initiatives and demonstrate their commitment to a diverse student population.
The good news for these schools is that their audiences—applicants, faculty, students, staff and alumni—will be very receptive to initiatives such as these. Students will always want to attend these universities, faculty will want to teach and research there and alumni are typically willing to forgive and forget. So now it is up to the schools to reassure them and give them reason to believe they will make things better.