What Syracuse University did right

On the heels of Penn State’s molestation crisis came revelations and accusations involving Bernie Fine, a long-time assistant coach to college basketball legend Jim Boeheim at Syracuse.

Allegations that Fine molested young boys when they worked for the basketball program — one of the most successful, profitable and high-profile in the nation — are not new. The university in 2005 and the Syracuse Post-Standard in 2006 investigated the allegations exhaustively and found the evidence available at that time lacked conclusive proof. Now more men claiming to be victims are coming forward.

Put aside for now the issues of guilt or innocence or timing. How has the university handled the crisis?

First, Chancellor Nancy Cantor demonstrated she’s in command. Decisions were clearly made and communicated. She was careful at first, but clear that the university had looked into this earlier. When fresh evidence accumulated, she moved decisively to fire Fine. Having a decisive, commanding CEO is a key component in a strong crisis-management plan.

Second, Boeheim, who initially backed Fine, issued a statement when Fine was fired apologizing for perceived insensitivity to victims and then got behind the chancellor. In a crisis, mistakes will be tolerated, if they are admitted to quickly and corrected. He subsequently faces a lawsuit for allegedly defaming two of the victims. We’ll see where that goes.

Third, the university and its communications professionals — full disclosure, some of whom I know  or know of — are managing the crisis. They’ve come forward with facts as they understood them, were as transparent and proactive as possible and cooperated as needed. If they did not know something, they admitted it. When the new allegations surfaced, the university quickly hired an outside law firm to independently review its 2005 investigation. They’ve been fast with the facts.

Finally, the university has remembered to communicate internally, with students, faculty and staff. Many crisis managers forget about the hometown team. If this constituency feels respected and communicated with, the odds are it will support the institution. That helps immeasurably because retaining loyalty of your core is crucial to withstanding the inevitable criticism from outside.

Syracuse is weathering the storm, so far. That’s the goal of any crisis: Break even. Don’t let it diminish your reputation.

Certainly, Fine, little known previously outside Syracuse and college basketball, is not Joe Paterno, the paternalistic college football coach and Penn State’s eminence grise.

But Syracuse also acted fast on its forewarnings, admitted mistakes, promoted what it did properly and right, and maintained a quick-response effort that demonstrated clear advanced planning, fast dispersal of facts and proactive decision making.

The second guessers remain, because the crisis for SU persists. Odds are it will take some hits for retaining Fine all these years. But there is the feeling — another signal of a crisis well handled — that this is a crisis for the basketball program, rather than the university at large.

No SU students rampaged into the streets when news circulated of Fine’s firing.


About steveoncrisis

The content is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It comes from Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and as managing editor and editorial page editor at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower and Associates, one of the nation's largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agency with six offices in the Northeast and Southeast.
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