It’s fortunate the state of Ohio doesn’t allow firearms on college campuses. Otherwise, I worry that the administration at Kent State might shoot themselves in the foot. They’ve done so in the figurative sense three times this semester, and it hurts us all.
Since September, three management errors have landed KSU in the headlines, and the impact on long-term reputation is beginning to show. In each case, the university has ducked serious questions from the media and issued statements that rationalize their missteps. As a faculty member AND a financial backer of Kent State, I’m cringing, and so are many of our alumni and friends.
As I said, three stories have bitten us in the backside. The most recent broke yesterday when Akron Beacon Journal reported that Ed Mahon, VP of information services, received a nifty little bonus in addition to a 10% raise this year. The bonus was $88,000 earmarked to pay Mahon’s tuition for a doctoral program at Case Western Reserve University’s Weatherhead School.
The Case program in “business leadership” is one our own College of Business can’t duplicate. We focus on “teaching” business, Weatherhead focuses on “doing” business. So the Case doctorate is clearly a better fit for Mahon.
What doesn’t fit is asking Ohio’s taxpayers foot the bill. Sure, in private business it’s common practice to pay for graduate education of employees. In state-supported education, at least in Ohio, it is not. Carol Biliczky, the ABJ’s education reporter, did her homework and found only a few isolated cases in which state universities covered such costs. None came anywhere close to $88,000.
A university spokesperson sent the reporter, via email, the administration’s rationale for Mahon’s perk. The statement said it is “common and useful to managers from entry level to senior levels of management. As it turns out, professional development training such as this is common in the workforce.”
Nice try, but this isn’t a standard practice for state-supported universities in Ohio. The payment is exorbitant by any standard and a long way from the “best practices” we should all be trying to emulate.
Today’s follow-up editorial headlined “Free ride at Kent State, Another embarrassing moment in university spending,” is another publicity disaster. And it gives local opinion leaders, donors and alumni one more reason to raise one more eyebrow in the direction of Kent, Ohio.
The editorial also reminds readers of KSU’s last big financial miscue involving President’s Lefton’s $40,000 European trip last summer. I wrote about that here.
Of course, none of these headlines supports the brand image KSU is seeking under it’s new slogan, “Excellence in Action.” Rather, they are the antithesis of it.
Our story isn’t complete without a mention of that third miscue, the one involving the recall of Dr. Julio Assad Pino from his 6-week research leave in the Middle East.
Seems that Dr. Pino’s trip was never properly approved by the higher ups, so he was forced to return 4 weeks early. His boss, the chair of the history department, lost that post and was returned to the faculty. It was yet another high-profile story that grew directly from a small error in management compounded by an even bigger one.
Aside: The Pino story might not have made page one were it not for the professor’s own high profile. The Kent State faithful may remember that Pino became the whipping boy of rightwing bloggers and the topic of numerous MSM stories last spring. Yeah, I wrote about that, too, here and here.
In defense of the PR pros at KSU, I’ll ask a simple question: “What’s a communicator to do?” There’s no defense for bad decisions. Crisis management 101 dictates that you apologize, admit your errors, then explain how you’re going to fix them. You don’t try to manage the news coverage.
What KSU is doing instead is rationalizing its mistakes and hiding in the bunker. Meanwhile, the university’s key stakeholders are likely having one of those WTF moments. And as they do, they may be rethinking their relationship with the institution.
I don’t enjoy using this space to criticize the people who provide me the greatest job on earth — a job that allows me to impact the lives of so many young people.
But those “kids” are precisely why I’m writing. Students in my PR classes leave Kent State for careers that will span 40, or perhaps even 50 years. During those careers, they’ll make plenty of mistakes. We all do. So to the extent to which my lessons can help them avoid those mistakes, I’m obligated to present them.
If you study the literature of crisis or reputation management, you learn that at least 3 of 4 crises are of our own making. With a little anticipation, and a little advance introspection, bad decisions are easy to avoid.
David Finn wrote about it way back in 1959, calling it the “page one” rule. When making decisions, Finn said, act as though a reporter from the local newspaper is in the room recording your every word and questioning your every move. If that makes you uncomfortable, rethink the decision. Because of Ohio’s open-records law, a reporter IS in the room, at least virtually.
A colleague this morning asked me what counsel I might offer the administration today if asked. I’m gonna think about that a while, and I hope you will, too.
There is a place for your ideas below.