How can universities handle reputational risk better?

January 15, 2018

Higher education is seemingly in an increasingly perilous spot. As the job market shifts — 47 to 54% of jobs will likely be lost to automation by 2030, or roughly 800 million jobs globally — higher ed also needs to reinvent itself to be more of a value-add in the modern age. Just a few years ago, The New Yorker referred to higher education as predominantly “an arms race” that was benefiting the administrators more than students and parents.

Into this confusing time comes a lot of issues with reputational risk, shown recently in new research led by United Educators. The research is based on questions sent to board of trustees chairs, presidents, chief financial officers and other senior administrators at 145 institutions in 2017.

The Key Findings


As you can see, the previous three years (purple) included campus climate and sexual assault/Title IX issues as predominant (along with academic programs and student behavior). In the next three years, those remain concerns and business model shoots way up as well.

Some quick hit takeaways yield even more to think about, though. Note:

  • 87% believe the board has organizational oversight of reputational risk
  • 83% believe that reputational risk is more important than three years ago
  • 78% believe that the institution has identified drivers of reputational risk
  • 67% have a reputational risk plan and response in place

Take those together: 9 in 10 believe the board has oversight, and more than 8 in 10 see reputational risk as an increasing issue. Hold those thoughts for one second.

Now consider these statistics, from the same report:

  • Only 26% of survey respondents believe that their institution’s response to reputational risk is consistently proactive
  • The number of reputational risk events occurring is large
  • The impact of some reputational risk events can be devastating, and
  • 54% of institutions state that they do not have the ability to withstand a major reputational risk event.

So despite the confidence of the first set of statistics, that confidence isn’t really there — less than 3 in 10 believe the response is proactive, more than half think they lack the ability to withstand a reputational risk event, and most seem to agree the sheer number of reputational risk events is large.

Now consider the current situation at Michigan State

2018 is shaping up to be Michigan State’s “annus horribilis.”  The university administrators are finding that the standard actions in the crisis toolbox– demanding the resignation of a senior person and appointing an outside investigator– are no longer sufficient to stem the reputation hemorrhaging.

In this post-Harvey Weinstein world where allegations of harassment and predation have shaken institutional foundations to the core, the game has changed for everyone. This has moved beyond the actions of a sexual predator.  It is now about “what did you know, when did you know it and why didn’t you do anything about it?” The greatest challenge Michigan State faces now is how to manage the widening circle of damage threatening its trustees, its entire athletic department, and the trust of faculty, students, alumni and donors — as well as future applicants.

Words alone can’t fix this.  Investigations, accountability, soul-searching and culture-change will be the order of the day.  The university can’t think reputation-repair tactics will be an exercise measured in weeks and months.  While the matter may drift from the national conversation, the caretakers of the university’s reputation are facing a Manhattan Project-sized challenge that will take years to address.

What’s the path through this for Michigan State and other universities?

Consider a Reputation Management Council 

A Reputation Management Council, created with representatives from multiple disciplines, fosters mutual understanding of risks, and ensures the right issues get surfaced at the right time.

This could work for universities because of the disconnect shown above: most higher ed institutions seemingly do not have a venue where critical thinking about reputation growth and risk can take place among key leaders. It seems the belief is that the board should do it, but the board isn’t doing it proactively enough — and that’s possibly because of being pulled in multiple directions, lacking the knowledge base to handle crises, etc.

Understanding your potential risk framework as an university would be Step 1. The report here outlines some of the major areas for risk, as an example.

Also understanding that ultimately, universities (and corporations) are defined by their behaviors and actions in critical moments. That’s Step 2.

Step 3 is figuring out how to approach it — and it’s clear the current models aren’t being viewed favorably, so a cross-disciplinary Reputation Management Council makes some sense here. It would also allow for differing perspectives on the risk issue that’s arisen, as opposed to simply the board or the President’s office.

This is important not just for the institutional integrity of the university, but for the quality of experience that the students receive. In an era supposedly defined by customer experience, you must think of students as customers, as crass as that might feel to some. If you’re unable to deliver for them academically and culturally, future generations will go elsewhere. And we already know business model is a looming concern.

To get in front of the risk issues that might drive down student experience, you need a new approach. Isn’t it time?

Filed under: Blog


Bill is a reputation management, crisis communications and professional development expert, keynote speaker, Wall Street Journal Risk & Compliance panelist, and best-selling author of Critical Moments: The New Mindset of Reputation Management. He has more than 25 years of global experience managing high-stakes crises, issues management, and media relations challenges for both Fortune 500 companies and winning global political campaigns.