There’s no underselling how important professors are in our society. We rely on them to shape the next generation and instill the knowledge students need as they prepare to head into the workforce. However, it’s becoming clear that when they’re not careful, their personal biases can overshadow the education their institutions had promised and create a toxic environment for students.
Millions are currently talking about a professor and administrator at Duke University who recently sent an email asking students not to speak Chinese. The incident, circulated by Bloomberg, The New York Times, and the BBC, has spurred discussions worldwide around bias in higher education. It has left people wondering what colleges are doing to protect students from bias and harassment, and just how much a professor or administrator can damage their institution’s brand through the things they say.
How social media scandals impact higher education
Duke will likely withstand this PR incident. However, many institutions see much larger repercussions when a scandal breaks loose. A paper from Harvard Business School shows that colleges that receive long-form news coverage about a high-profile scandal can experience a 10% drop in applications for over two consecutive years. This is equal to losing 10 ranks in the U.S. News and World Report college rankings. As a college or university, your reputation impacts both the quality and quantity of donations, enrollment, and funding. Though your school’s overall reputation is made up of many components, it hinges largely upon the administrators and faculty members you hire to build your image.
Administrators and faculty are the builders, creators, and guardians of the institutional brand. Graduate students often identify themselves with their supervisors, and even prospective undergraduates look up professors before they apply. Today, we live in an age where the things that administrators and faculty say can be turned against them as well as your school. While it’s true that some professors have received undue criticism for their views, the reality is that academic opinions do not rule out the occurrence of genuinely concerning and costly behaviors, such as harassment or discrimination.
The costs of harmful administrator and faculty behaviors
The numbers are staggering. The alleged ignorance of sexual harassment at one of the Ivy League colleges recently led to a class action lawsuit for $70 million. Another top school in the U.S. News and World Report reached a $215 million settlement after 500 students came forward to accuse a gynecologist of sexual misconduct.
However, many of these cases can be detected before it’s too late. A renowned professor who came under fire for sexual harassment had been inappropriately emailing a direct report for years. A VP at another top college who became notorious for insensitive remarks had a history of controversial posts on public social media. Harassment and discrimination scandals can shake a university to the core. When so many of them can be traced online, not taking action to stop them early is a costly oversight.
Don’t confuse a controversial academic opinion with genuine forms of incivility, harassment, and bias that can harm your institution. Students, alumni, and funders today all demand more from colleges and universities. Your success rides on your school’s reputation—and the way to prevent unwanted headlines begins with setting a higher standard for how administrators and faculty embody your brand.