This week, we start our annual look at college and university PR challenges and controversies with politically incorrect remarks, budget crises, workplace bullying, racial tensions and presidential resignations, across North America. 2016 Higher Ed Headaches, part I: Budgets & Bunnies!
Bad luck, bad decisions, and even poor choice of words can derail an academic presidency. Last year started with president Simon Newman at Maryland’s Mount St Mary’s University. In January he made international headlines for his colourful metaphor to describe his approach to improve student retention statistics: drown the bunnies! He then demoted the Provost, fired two faculty members, and was beset with protests, AAUP objections, and an investigation by accreditors. After weeks of chaos, he resigned.
Kevin Nagel resigned as president of Keyano College in Alberta, after plunging oil prices took a toll on the region’s economy, and the college budget. (Even before the wildfire.)
Cape Breton University’s board dismissed president David Wheeler over his attempts to avert a faculty strike (without involving the board negotiating committee).
Brock University announced a “mutual decision” not to proceed with the appointment of its new president, just 3 days before she was to take office. The national media reported on an investigation into her department at Ryerson, based on anonymous allegations of a “toxic workplace.”
Cultural insensitivity and political incorrectness can be capital offenses on campus. Racial microaggressions have roiled many US college campuses in recent years.
The University of Missouri was rocked by hunger strikes, a faculty walkout, and a tent city in the crowd – but made international headlines when the football team went on strike. Within weeks, system president Tim Woolfe and the Chancellor both resigned. Undergraduate recruitment suffered immediately, with new students dropping 24% in a single year.
Black Lives Matter protestors at Ithaca College in New York held a walkout in solidarity with Mizzou, and 72% of students and faculty voted no confidence in president Tom Rochon. In January he announced that he would step down – in 19 months!
Microaggressions weren’t always fatal to presidents; sometimes it was just the figure-heads who rolled. At Georgetown University in Washington DC, protests against 2 buildings named for former presidents who had arranged the sale of slaves to fund the institution eventually led to them being renamed.
Harvard University Law School agreed to drop its official shield, which commemorated a wealthy slaveowner donor.
Yale University was less easily convinced that it needed to change the name of Calhoun College. In April 2016 they insisted the name would not change. But after a year of protests and bad publicity, Yale finally relented in February 2017.
In Canada, protests over racial insensitivities are more proactive than reactive. At Wilfrid Laurier University, protesters managed to derail a project that would install statues on campus of all 22 former prime ministers. They insisted it was insensitive to First Nations and minority groups.
That’s part I of 2016 Headaches. Next week, we’ll look at 2 of the biggest PR migraines of the year. They caught the public imagination because they involved sex and gender.
Next time: Pronouns and Poets. Stay tuned!
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