Strategic PR moves depend on secrecy. As soon as the veil of secrecy is lifted, all the bad publicity comes roaring back. In 2001, the University of California Davis made national news after a photo of a campus police officer pepper-spraying demonstrators sparked outrage and fears of police militarization. The administration was apparently much more concerned about its own reputation than transparency about its campus police force, so in 2013 the administration contracted a PR firm for $175,000 in order to scrub all mentions of the attack from search engine results. And all was well and good until Tuesday, when the Sacramento Bee uncovered documents revealing the university’s deception.
This was undoubtedly a crass PR stunt, doubly so coming from a public university. Trust in our institutions of higher learning is brokered on the idea that they are stewards of humanity and fairness. We expect universities to act as role models for the community, to pass down not only knowledge but also ethical conduct. We expect them to know better — at least to know better than to stoop this low. With these documents, UC Davis’s twisted priorities have finally come to light. The university has made it abundantly clear that it values its public image more than its students’ safety and its own accountability.
Unfortunately, public image has long been a growing part of university administrators’ agendas. Covering up crime statistics, rapes and other unseemly incidents has been a common practice, particularly at prestigious universities. An investigation by the Columbus Dispatch found evidence of hundreds of unreported disciplinary hearings for physical and sexual assaults at Ohio universities. At Ivy League universities, a slew of lawsuits and Title IX complaints point to a culture of suppressing rape reports and disenfranchising victims. These schools hide these statistics solely out of fear of negative media attention. Though managing a university’s image is important, it pales in importance to actually addressing the student issues that cause negative PR in the first place. The efforts of UC Davis’s PR team are just a continuation of a culture among university administrators that seems to privilege appearances over actually helping students.
University PR teams cannot simply cover up police brutality and sexual assault forever, and university administration should not content themselves merely with covering up. The only way for these problems to go away is for universities to address them head on. The second that marketing trumps a university’s need to serve its students and community, even society at large will suffer.
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