When a scandal rocks a higher education institution, the scandal tends to become two-pronged, the event that caused the scandal, and the subsequent outcry over the use of public dollars to pay for PR firms to clean up the mess.
Funds allocated for public relation at a higher education institution are typically geared toward marketing materials given to potential students. But an increasing amount is now spent to deal with the damage done to the school when a scandal hits.
Recently it’s been the University of California at Davis when peaceful student protesters were pepper-sprayed to end the demonstration in 2011. In the last dozen years, other notable higher education scandals include:
- Penn State child sex abuse
In 2011, Jerry Sandusky was accused of using the facilities at Penn State to sexually abuse young boys.
- University of Illinois admissions favoritism
In 2009, it was revealed that the school had a “clout” list of potential students given admission preference because their families were politically connected.
- University of Colorado athlete recruiting
In 2005, the college president resigned amid accusations that sex, drugs, and alcohol were used to recruit athletes.
- American University misuse of expense accounts
President Benjamin Ladner was removed in 2005 after his former driver ( Ladner fired him) tipped off The Washington Post that Ladner had used university funds to cover the costs of a 13-course dinner at an engagement party. Ladner received nearly $4 million in severance pay when he left American University.
- Eastern Michigan University cover-up of a murder on campus
Officials fired President John A. Fallon III in 2007 after a federal report alleged the school had downplayed a murder on campus. Officials claimed there was no reason to suspect foul play after the discovery of what turned out to be an apparent rape-murder.
- UC Chancellor’s Suicide over her misspending of school funds
Denice Denton committed suicide in 2006, seemingly the only suicide of a university president in recent decades. She had been accused of alleged overspending, including $600,000 in renovations to her university residence and $192,000-a-year job for her partner. Prior to her death, student protesters followed her around campus.
- Montgomery College misuse of expense accounts
Brian K. Johnson resigned as president of Maryland’s most esteemed community college in 2009 after a no-confidence vote by faculty, alleging a pattern of overspending and absenteeism. Some critics also felt Johnson’s travel and dining habits were extravagant.
In relation to the Penn State sex scandal alone, the Washington Post published this in April 2012, not quite six months after Sandusky’s arrest, “Penn State has already paid $5.3 million to several firms, including Ketchum and Kekst Public Relations, to conduct an internal investigation and handle crisis communications, according to the university. Officials announced on Wednesday that they had retained two new firms, Edelman and local shop La Torre Communications, for the next year for $2.5 million.” The Pope Center reports that the Penn State scandal PR total was $7.8 million.
In addition to the standard public relations expenditures for a typical college or university, additional funds will also be allocated to combat unflattering media attention when a school has an issue. This is happening in an atmosphere where state and federal budgets for education are already tight, while salaries for school officials are high, and short-term solutions always seem to be exuberant tuition hikes.