Repairing a reputation damaged by protests

Enrollment of Freshmen at the University of Missouri's Columbia campus falls by more than 35 percent

Freshman enrollment at the Columbia campus of the University of Missouri has fallen by more than 35 percent since the institution’s well-publicized and racially driven student protests in November 2015, according to a July New York Times article.

The institution acknowledges that the incidents are a major cause of the drop. Mizzou is temporarily shuttering seven dorms and cutting 400 faculty and staff positions—a move spurred also by cutbacks in state funding. Reputational harm can turn a thriving institution into a struggling one in less than two years, but it does not necessarily result in a death spiral.

“It’s very eye-catching, but it is very unlikely to have long-term structural consequences,” says Barmak Nassirian, director of federal policy for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. “This is not to say you can ignore an issue—obviously, if you take your hands off the wheel, you’re going to drive off the road.”

Nassirian expects Mizzou to remedy its enrollment drop. Intense outreach can convince stakeholders that steps are being taken to improve conditions on campus. Administrators must be transparent in reinforcing the institution’s core value proposition and academic mission to return the institution to its prior rate of growth.

Still, the situation should be a wake-up call to all of higher ed: Campus protests can cause reputational harm, says Kevin Kruger, president of NASPA, an organization for student affairs professionals.

“One of the lessons we keep learning from these incidents is that presidential leadership is incredibly important,” he adds. “When you have high-pressure situations, students and the community want to hear from the leadership. They want to hear concrete examples of what’s going to change.”

Crisis management plans can help mitigate long-term reputational harm. This includes preparing models for how administrators should react to various scenarios, from large student protests to violence-related incidents. Who is going to speak and how is communication going to happen? Also, any message should involve clear, concise language and specific details.

An immediate, well-prepared response is key—as opposed to “letting nature take its course,” Nassirian says. “With the fast pace of social media today,” Kruger adds, “you don’t have the time or the luxury of time you may have had 10 years ago to study a crisis, think through it, and plan a response.”

Mizzou’s case was so heavily covered that there was probably little chance of protecting the university’s reputation, says Kruger. Just as enrollment can sometimes increase after a stellar NCAA tournament, it can decline after a negative incident.

“Enrollment fluctuates,” says Nassirian. “And fluctuations are sometimes really structural and represent a truly environmental trend, but sometimes it’s just volatility, and volatility tends to even itself out.” 

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