Northwestern University’s football scandal, which has risen to the surface this week, is an important reminder for anyone in a position of authority in higher education.
There are few more high-profile institutions in American life than our colleges and universities. After 25 years of working with them, on issues from academic to athletic, public and private, it isn’t just about what happens when something goes wrong. “How they handled it” is part of the conversation among alumni, supporters and even in the news coverage itself.
Within hours of the firing of longtime football coach and onetime star player Pat Fitzgerald, sports writers were already on TV and on social media far from their comfort zone of Xs and Os and recruiting rankings, breaking down the PR aspects of the story. And, as usual, it wasn’t pretty. It’s easy to question the zig then zag by Northwestern’s president, whose first choice was a two-week unpaid vacation before a student newspaper report ultimately led to a reconsideration and then a firing. But there are some answers that are relatively easy to provide, if only the private institution could, just for this instance, think like a public school. Let’s face it, while not subject to laws like the Freedom of Information Act, private universities that operate big-time athletics are de facto public institutions.
The university commissioned a law firm report when reports of hazing first came forward. That was a good decision. But they intend to keep the report private, which is a decision that hopefully was challenged internally before it was made. As a communications professional who has worked with universities under similar circumstances, those that have fared the best with the public in these situations have been those that have shared the results of the external reviews, then acted accordingly. Audiences are much kinder when they understand why decisions are made. But those that play the “private” card tend to suffer by leaving audiences in the dark, leaving an information and understanding void in the name of privacy entitlement.
Fitzgerald now has a big name lawyer, one who has made deals on behalf of politicians and even Fox News. If no settlement can be reached, this is headed to court. Then, inevitably, the investigation will be made public. By then, it may be too late to enlighten the university’s audiences that are hungry for context now, on the eve of an uncertain football season and future. Until then, all they get are dueling statements.
I’ve heard it before from private higher ed clients. “We’re a private school. We don’t have to say anything.” True. You don’t. But maybe you should. In times of adversity, it’s worth thinking of the big picture and balancing the public nature of the institution with its legal imperatives. Regardless of the outcome, remember some reporter is going to be tasked with covering your PR angle, helping to shape what your audiences think about not just what you did, but how you did it.