University Crisis Management – Lessons from the Penn State Crisis

By Matt Eventoff

“Our goal is not to be just punitive, but to make sure the university establishes an athletic culture in which football will never again be placed ahead of educating, nurturing and protecting young people.

“The gut-check message is do we have the right balance in our culture….or are we in a position where hero worship and winning at all costs has subordinated our core values?”

- Mark Emmert, NCAA President

NCAA President Mark Emmert has just announced penalties against Penn State University, and those penalties are significant, to say the least. These penalties send a clear message, not just to Penn State but also to the leadership of every university and college. University crisis management must begin today, whether a crisis exists in the public eye or not.

Many colleges and universities are in crisis, but just don’t realize it. It is a crisis of brand messaging, and as higher education changes, having a brand defined solely around athletics will create crises going forward. Again, university crisis management must begin today.

There is no question that college athletics play a significant role at many institutions of higher education, and that’s a good thing. College athletics build character, camaraderie among students and obviously drive real revenue into university coffers.

Many colleges and universities (Stanford, UCLA, Duke, Notre Dame, Michigan, the Ivy’s, and many others) have unrivaled academic and athletic reputations. Many more have reputations based around some recognition of an athletic program. Many of these schools have excellent academic pedigrees that go largely unnoticed outside of their particular region.

Unless a university has the fundraising prowess of Princeton, Notre Dame or a handful of others, having a reputation as a school with decent athletics, and largely unknown or unrecognized academics will be devastating. State funding continues to dry up, and most of us were not college athletes.

What colleges and universities need to think about today:

1. Take Mark Emmert’s advice – Do a true internal “opposition research” investigation into your own programs – see what would appear in the face of a crisis. It is much easier to prepare now than to respond in the maelstrom of events, as we have just witnessed;

2. Take Political Science 101 – Most colleges and universities have a political science department. What many colleges and universities are missing is campaign experience, outside of fundraising. Learn from successful political campaigns. This will help a college to…

3. Spread the word – about your successes, your top programs, what they mean to the community, what they mean to each and every one of us as individuals, and what they mean to society at large;

4. Sum up your social good – Colleges and universities do tremendous social good, but often have a hard time quantifying it en masse. This is where message development strategy is crucial;

5. Diversify – Penn State is no different from a number of great academic institutions where an athletic program doesn’t just overshadow academic reputation, it eclipses it. Athletic programs bring in lots of revenue, so this is not an issue, until it is. For Penn State, it is. An issue worth hundreds of millions of dollars. That won’t put PSU out of business….but for some others it would mean the doors are closed for good.

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One Response to “University Crisis Management – Lessons from the Penn State Crisis”


  1. great synopsis

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