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The Politization of Higher Education

April 23, 2007

Politics has always been a part of the higher education experience.  One of the core missions of many institutions is to train the next generation of civic leaders.  Over the last 40 years students have debated and protested many issues on college campuses throughout the country.  But in the last ten years there has been a shift - the educational institutions themselves are increasingly becoming the targets of political protest from outside groups.   

The most high profile example of this is the University of Michigan’s affirmative action admission policies.  The University defended its policies all the way to the Supreme Court.  The Court came back with a split decision that upheld some sections of the policy while rejecting others.  The opponents then ran a statewide ballot initiative to restrict all affirmative action policies in the state of Michigan.  The ballot initiative passed in November 2006 and now the University is exploring its options.

This week, the Minneapolis Community Technical College was under attack because it plans to install footbaths for Muslim students.  The story exploded because one right-wing blogger discovered the news and started a blogstorm on Christian conservative blogs.  The story was then picked up by conservative newspaper columnist as an example of how the university restricts the right of Christian students by limiting Christmas displays on campus but it is willing to spend $200 to install a footbath for Muslim students.  The columnist failed to mention that the footbaths were installed because staff were concerned that students could injure themselves by trying to wash their feet in a 3 foot high sink.

Both of these stories highlight the need for higher education institutions to be aware that they may easily become the target of a political firestorm.  Corporations have been experiencing the same sort of attacks since the 1980s.  In response, they have developed reputation management and public relations teams that monitor these type of activities and work to address them.  Despite their best efforts, the Internet is now making it significantly easier for a single individual to destroy a reputation of a corporation or higher education institution.

Wal-Mart has found out the hard way how information, thought to be a secret, can get out to the public.  Over the last few years, Wake Wal-Mart has released embarrassing internal memos about the companies hiring practices.  Also, the Internet allows information to travel very quickly.  Many corporations often don’t know that they have a problem until it is too late.  Here are some recommendations to more effectively manage your institutions reputation:

1. Monitor it It is important to know what is being said about your institution on the net.  Monitoring this information will help you evaluate whether the information is gaining traction on the web.  If a few tier one (influential) blogs begin to pick it up.  You will need to respond quickly.  But, not everything warrants a response.

2. Engage Critics It is always appropriate to correct misinformation.  This can be done on the blogs themselves, through the comment sections, or by creating your own blog.  Responding quickly gives your supporters the information they need to defend you.

3. Be Open Too many institutions respond with "no comment" when these issues develop.  It is important to be transparent, provide candor, and admit to mistakes (if mistakes were made).

4. Alert Communication/Customer Service Staff Staff that answer the main phone lines for your institution should closely monitor phone calls that come in on this issue.  Some groups will try to reach out to you before they go to the media.  It will be important to flag so that the appropriate person can follow-up with them.  Too often, these calls get lost in the shuffle and these individuals are never responded to.  This can make the situation much worse.

5. Identify Allies If you think that an issue could blow-up soon, you should identify some allies that can speak in support of the institution. 

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