How admission offices can navigate the damage of Michigan State-type scandals

The trial and conviction of former Michigan State University team physician Larry Nassar—and the subsequent resignation of long-time president Lou Anna Simon, among others—brought a tremendous amount of negative publicity to the school.

Such a high-profile scandal—particularly one centered on sexual abuse, negligence and student welfare—affects an institution at every level, including enrollment and admissions.

Once an institution’s reputation is compromised, it can take years to rebuild.

After the Jerry Sandusky sexual abuse scandal broke at Penn State in late 2011, the university saw a drop in applications during the next two admissions cycles. However, by 2014, applications numbers had recovered, and have subsequently increased to record levels.

An institution needs to confront damaging publicity head on, says Tom Green, associate executive director of consulting and strategic enrollment management for AACRAO. Perception is key, so admissions personnel need to discuss the facts openly and not try to spin the situation.

Face the music

“The first thing administrators really have to address is, ‘Is the campus safe for students?’ ” says Green. “That is the No. 1 issue. Not who covered it up, not who knew about it. Students want to know, ‘Am I risking safety to attend this campus? How assured can I be that this is not going to happen again?’ ”

Green suggests an institution be proactive and transparent, possibly by sending a letter to accepted students detailing what steps have been taken to prevent such a situation in the future.

Timing also counts. Campus leaders should respond to a scandal before students and parents ask. Extra training and talking points should be provided to admissions employees to make sure all issues are clear and nothing is left to chance or speculation.

Taking the temperature

Institutions can track the impact on enrollment in multiple ways, says Green. Look for drop-offs in applications—including from transfer students—and monitor commitment-related activity, such as whether students are submitting housing or financial aid applications. Also, ask high school counselors how prospective students view the institution.

“Students do not call up and say, ‘Hey, I’m angry, I’m not coming.’ They just don’t show up,”  says Green. “By taking the temperature in different places, you have a better chance of understanding and reacting to what’s happening.”

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