A Campus in Crisis: How One Top University Handled a Reputation Blunder

by Belfort Group | Agency News , Thought Leadership
January 6, 2014

As of late, it seems like collegiate athletic programs and scandals go hand in hand. From assault allegations to illegal compensation, the list goes on and on, impacting schools large and small. But what happens when the athletic scandals envelop academics? Suddenly the university goes from a school with a shoddy athletic program to a school with its academic reputation on the line, now directly affecting recruitment and enrollment of top intellectual talent.

Beginning in 2010, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was faced with this exact scenario. What started off as an NCAA investigation into relationships between football players and sports agents escalated into a full-blown academic nightmare for the university, ranked as one of the top public universities in the nation. Allegations arose claiming dozens of classes in UNC’s African Studies department never took place, despite the fact that students were given grades and allotted credit hours towards graduation. Many of these students with fabricated grades also happened to be top athletes.

UNC Chapel Hill took the necessary steps to repair the university’s academic reputation including:

Truth and Transparency

When the athletic scandal boiled over into academics, UNC knew it was being watched very closely by its stakeholders and the general public. The prevailing strategy soon became clear – be truthful and forthcoming will any and all information. If the public loses trust, regaining it should be top priority for a university. If the public feels slighted or misled, all faith in the information goes down the drain.

Shift in Power

In September of 2012, Chancellor Holden Thorp announced he would resign at the end of the academic year. At UNC, like many universities, the Chancellor acts as the chief executive officer of the school. Although he may not have directly caused the issues Carolina was facing, he was, as some have said, the captain of the ship and someone had to take responsibility. This created a power shift and demonstrated to stakeholders that proactive steps were taking place to move the university past the incident. Actions speak louder than words and often have a greater impact than issuing statements that say the university is investigating the allegations.

Communications Professionals

UNC appointed a senior public relations executive as the first vice chancellor for communications and public affairs to manage the university’s public relations efforts. Joel Curran, a 27-year veteran of the public relations industry, now leads communication efforts and is in charge of promoting Carolina to key audiences. The UNC Board of Trustees also created an external affairs task force. These steps taken by UNC show that a plan is in place and they are, once again, being proactive to hopefully avoid future crisis situations. Curran plans to tell the stories of Chapel Hill with “greater strategy and more orchestration.” Deliberate, planned executions of communications are needed to maintain a concise message for audiences.

So, where are they now?

Repercussions from these scandals are still reverberating through the small town of Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Although the university has been forthcoming and cooperative with all investigations, it has still been criticized for not releasing public records surrounding the scandals. Julius Nyang’oro, former UNC African Studies department chairman, was also recently indicted for obtaining property by false pretenses; the former professor allegedly received $12,000 for a class he never actually taught.

Despite reputation challenges, UNC enrollment has not wavered. The class of 2017 boasted a record number of applicants with almost 31,000 students vying for 3,900 open slots in the incoming class.

All-in-all, UNC is moving forward and has hopefully learned a valuable lesson – the truth will always come out, whether you’re prepared for it or not. As this scandal comes to a close, UNC will be more equipped to tackle future pitfalls swiftly and efficiently.

Editor’s Note: UNC Chapel Hill is not a client of Belfort Group and the author is a recent graduate of the university.

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