It’s fall here in Charlottesville, sort of, and school is back in session. The University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors, that venerable group in charge of running the place, has declared that they are “ready to move on” from this summer’s disastrous debacle in which they attempted to fire their new president, Theresa Sullivan, and then reinstated her under great pressure from just about every other University constituency. It was a PR and marketing disaster in every way and I can certainly see how they’d want to move on as fast as possible.
Sadly, the sludge from this mess just keeps bubbling up to remind everyone in the community how poorly handled the whole thing was. Through Freedom of Information Act requests, journalists from local as well as national papers, like this week’s New York Times and The Chronicle of Higher Education, have released scathing accounts of the disaster and how it affects higher ed in general. I’m a proud Wahoo, so this stuff really bugs me.
I’d like to focus on the latest blog post from the Chronicle, because it exposes what I think is the biggest PR and marketing black eye of the whole thing: namely that The Rector of the Board of Visitors, Helen Dragas, has not only been opaque and obfuscatory in her explanations on why she felt the University needed a new president, she has actually solicited students and high-profile faculty like Larry Sabato to write her opinion FOR her, to lend their credibility to her tarnished message. Sabato politely declined.
One of the central roles of a university is to cultivate forms of free and open expression that embody the public sphere. What Dragas sought to create was something that looked like a public sphere, but would in fact be a planted product of corporate media relations, to go unrevealed as such.
So? you say. People do that all the time when they hire PR firms to write for them. We do it all the time when we solicit influencers to spread our thoughts around. True. This is different to me because it does not appear Ms. Dragas is seeking influencers, she is seeking mouthpieces. She is not willing to stand on her own merits publicly, but is asking students and faculty to speak for her, to lend her message the credibility through accepted channels she seems unable to generate for herself.
If you know anything about UVA, you know that the students are held to a very strict honor code that says if you lie, cheat or steal you are banned from the community forever. By asking a student to write her opinion for her, without crediting the original idea back, is Ms. Dragas pressuring that student to violate that honor code? Should the Rector be allowed to put faculty and students in that position? What does it say about the ethics of the Rector that she would consider violating the very code the University bases so much of its institutional integrity upon?
Read the whole article. It should give our whole industry pause. Anyone asking us to artificially create consensus, hide the truth, violate ethics, or induce spin should NOT be clients. Right??