Academic scandals can arise at any institution at any time, and a big factor in how well the institution emerges and moves on from a scandal is largely dependent on the way administrators handle the situation. In an interview with Academic Leader, Rob Jenkins, associate professor of English at Georgia Perimeter College, talked about the factors that can exacerbate the problem and things administrators can do to help manage scandals.
Jenkins identifies six types of academic scandals—administrative, financial, sexual, academic dishonesty, degree and credential, and those involving students—all of which follow a common pattern. “If you follow these stories in the news, you can see in almost every one of them, the immediate response is denial. Then there’s the admission/nonadmission—an admission that’s really not an admission. That’s often followed by an apology that’s not really an apology. Then there’s some final acknowledgement where the [institution’s leaders] have to make some decision. After that there is the aftermath,” Jenkins says.
Preparation is essential to managing a scandal. Jenkins recommends the following ways to prepare for potential scandals:
- Be aware of the possibility of a scandal, and know which types of scandals are most likely at your institution. For example, a small liberal arts college is not susceptible to the kind of scandal going on at the University of North Carolina, where a number of high-profile athletes are suspected of getting credit for courses they didn’t take.
- Allocate sufficient resources for public relations. One of the challenges of being prepared for potential scandals is a lack of resources. Often it’s difficult to justify increasing public relations resources, particularly at public institutions. Compared with other sectors, higher education institutions have fewer resources for public relations, which can negatively affect how a scandal unfolds. “When we see these scandals mushroom, very often it’s a reflection of the inexperience on the part of the people handling it,” Jenkins says.
- Cultivate friends, beware of enemies. “It helps to have friends in high places, and institutions often have this piece, especially the big institutions. Sometimes they also have enemies. If you are a president of a state institution and you’ve been hammering the legislature for the last 10 years about your budget … legislators aren’t happy about that. It makes them look bad. Many powerful presidents are unpopular with some powerful state politicians. I hate to say there’s a natural enmity there, but to some degree there is. So they might have powerful friends, but they might also have powerful enemies, and sometimes those people might even be a little happy to see something happen that makes this person look bad,” Jenkins says.
When a scandal erupts—whether it’s the recent cheating scandal at Harvard or the Penn State child sexual abuse scandal—there are two factors that can exacerbate the situation: denial (“It can’t happen here.”) and arrogance (“We’re Harvard.” “We’re Penn State.” “I’m a college professor.” “Who are you to question … ?”). “Those are both two very human failings. You can’t necessarily train people not to be arrogant, but what you can do is learn how to act and behave in public and what to say and what not to say,” Jenkins says. “I think the public perceived [former Penn State president] Graham Spanier as being incredibly arrogant. I don’t know the man. He might be a perfectly pleasant man. Perception isn’t necessarily reality, but it can become the de facto reality if it’s not handled correctly. I think [the public’s] perception of [the child sex abuse scandal] was worse because the public perceived the school as trying to cover up. We perceived the administration as thinking that the institution was more important than the young boys who had been abused. And people did not like that. People don’t respond well to arrogance.”
Jenkins recommends these considerations when a scandal breaks:
- Have an experienced representative address the public. Depending on the size and scope of the scandal, that can be a PR professional, the president, or another administrator. Remember that tone, body language, and facial expressions can have a significant effect on how the message is perceived.
- Be forthcoming. “The last thing you can afford to do is to retreat into your bunker. You’ve got to be out front. If you don’t know the answer to something, it’s OK to say ‘We don’t know the answer to that yet. We’re investigating it. We will tell you as soon as we know.’ Don’t try to use that technique to dodge the issue, because people might give you the benefit of the doubt the first time or two, but eventually they’re going to figure out that you do know and you’ve just been putting them off. But if you genuinely don’t know, if you come out there [and] you are visibly not arrogant or in denial, most people will give you the benefit of the doubt initially.”
- Be transparent. Acknowledge constituents’ concerns. “Don’t act as though you don’t know why they’re upset or don’t know why they have questions. That is arrogance with a little bit of denial thrown in. You might not fully know yet what you are even apologizing for, but it doesn’t hurt to come out with some sort of apology early on, such as ‘We’re looking into this; we need to get more facts. We’re sorry that this has become an issue. We’re sorry this has created problems for people, and we’ll get to the bottom of it, and we will let you know what we know as soon as we can.’ And you’ve got to follow through with that. You’ve got to be transparent even if it hurts.”
- Redirect attention. “You need someone—the president, a PR person, a powerful friend such as the governor or other politician—who can redirect the focus back to the positive aspects of the institution. This is exactly what Penn State has been trying to do, saying in effect, we’re still Penn State. We’re a great academic institution. We’ve done many good things. We continue to do many good things. … You’ve got to try to change the story. It takes a lot of skill, and it takes a lot of will,” Jenkins says.