Retrospective on UVA mess confirms that perception ignored


Last spring and summer, the trustees at the University of Virginia went through a series of self-immolations that damaged the university, crippled its president, drew widespread criticism and will probably put a dent in applications this fall and winter.

Now a solidly reported retrospective look at the whole poorly handled mess in The New York Times Magazine by Andrew Rice [thanks to EMA colleague David Grome for the link] clearly demonstrates that the major players either didn’t care about public perception or totally dismissed it.

More than a few large egos played roles for sure. And smart people populated both sides of the debacle. But no one apparently took time to listen to public affairs and crisis managers in advance about the damage that would be done.

Teresa Sullivan became UVA’s president two years earlier, moving over from a top post at Michigan. Defending herself as a incrementalist, she ran afoul of powerful trustees who wanted to see a faster change rate and did not take into account how academia works, even at a public university.

For a school that prides itself as an elite university, public or private, this was the first of many mistakes.

The board forced Sullivan’s resignation, initiated a search for a new president and then in the face of student and faculty fury, reversed itself and re-hired Sullivan.

The whole mess smacked of rushing to judgment, egotistical overlords — especially from some Wall Street aeries — who thought their word was law, and the school’s complete failure to predict accurately how key constituencies would perceive the decision.

From what I can see from Rice’s reconstruction, little or no attention was paid to internal stakeholders — students, staff, professors, state leaders — in advance of forcing Sullivan’s resignation. This is a major no-no in crisis management. If you lose your core constituencies, if in fact your ‘friends’ aren’t with you, you’ll never win a public debate.

Much of the credit/blame for the move to remove Sullivan went to Helen Dragas, scion of a major Virginia Beach real estate family and head of the UVA trustees. Putting aside the correctness or righteousness of her initiative — something Dragas herself never seemed able to do — the point about crisis management is not really whether an individual or institution is right or wrong.

It’s how will the move be perceived? Perception is fluid. You must consider it, respect it, influence it factually and transparently, or it will devour you.

Now UVA will spend years reconstructing its reputation, pay millions in hidden and resulting costs from this fiasco and still move at the same pace it always would have in achieving higher-education reform.

But maybe someone will remember perception next time.

The content of this blog is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It originates with Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and in four top editor positions at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agencies, with seven offices in the Northeast and Southeast. Learn more about EMA at http://www.mower.com. Steve’s blog is based on his own opinions and does not represent the views or positions of Eric Mower + Associates.

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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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