SAN FRANCISCO — Right after a former assistant coach of Penn State’s football team was indicted on pedophilia charges in November 2011, alumni association officials decided to tear up their nearly-finished January-February issue of Penn Stater magazine and instead devote that issue to the scandal that had engulfed the entire university community.
The result was a magazine with a one-time, solid black front cover in which the Penn Stater nameplate was dropped to the bottom, its letters purposely jumbled and misaligned as a metaphor to the shattered morale of university constituents.
“We treated the alumni as intelligent people,” said Roger Williams, executive director of the Penn State Alumni Association (Pennsylvania State University main campus). He suggested that alumni groups lacking magazines or other regular publications should nevertheless strive to “be honest and straightforward with your alumni. Give them the honest scoop. If your trust and credibility go up in smoke, then it’s ‘Game over.’”
Williams’ remarks came during a panel discussion earlier this week at an annual conference of the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE). The CASE event was a summit of college and K-12 advancement leaders from throughout the United States and 16 foreign countries.
At a session titled “The Sky is Falling,” Williams recounted how he and his colleagues tried to provide Penn Stater readers with unparalleled insight into the Jerry Sandusky child molestation scandal. For instance, one magazine article focused on the fate of the campus statue of former head football coach Joe Paterno. The article included quotes from a faculty member with expertise in statues.
The importance of teamwork during a campus crisis cannot be overstated, alumni association officials said.
“I remember vividly how we stepped up,” said Tom Tillar, vice president of alumni relations at Virginia Tech, where, on April 16, 2007, a student fatally shot 32 people before turning the gun on himself.
“We didn’t wait for instructions,” Tillar said. “We just acted on our own, but we also had an enormous sense of trust with colleagues. I pored over emails that came in; I answered phones. I don’t think I slept at all that week.”
Virginia Tech’s alumni center remained open 24 hours daily as a gathering place for news media, which numbered at least 1,000 in the aftermath of the mass shooting, he said. Ten press conferences took place at the alumni center that week. Confining reporters and photographers there proved helpful not only for law enforcement officers combing the campus grounds for forensic purposes, but also in providing some measure of privacy for families of students.
A crisis at the University of Virginia last year was similar to those of Virginia Tech and Penn State in that it occurred unexpectedly, “but ours was self-induced,” recalled Tom Faulders, president and CEO of the alumni association.
One Sunday afternoon, a tersely-worded press release by the UVA Board of Visitors announced the resignation of popular President Teresa Sullivan without specifying the reason for her departure after only two years in office.
Faulders immediately contacted the head of the board, known as the rector, urging her to say more in order to stamp out public confusion. Then came another press release on Monday “that was equally cryptic,” he said. “There were all kinds of rumors among alumni, and we were inundated with phone calls. My favorite rumor was that Goldman Sachs was taking over the university.”
Because the Board of Visitors instructed the university communications office not to speak to news media, the situation became “a p.r. disaster,” Faulders said.
Meanwhile, graduates from all age groups demanded that the alumni association find out what was really going on.
Because his organization’s mission statement required them to serve not only the alumni but also the university administration, Faulders and his colleagues decided to limit their involvement to posting a timeline of events online related to the president’s announced departure.
“Lots of people wanted us to pick a side, but we didn’t,” Faulders said. “We went down the middle because that’s where we decided we needed to be.”
Furthermore, when the Board of Visitors asked Faulders and his colleagues to show greater sympathy for the board’s point of view, he declined.
Less than three weeks after the departure of Sullivan was announced, the board reinstated her as president, restoring calm to the campus. Since then, more alumni have asked Faulders’ organization how they can get involved to better UVA.
“That’s a silver lining to all this,” he said.
The panel discussion of three alumni association CEOs allowed them to reflect candidly on the importance of maintaining perspective during traumatic times and share best practices on how to engage alumni in restoring the images of the institutions. CASE is an association for advancement professionals working on behalf of alumni relations, communications, development, marketing and allied areas.
Panel moderator Steve Grafton, president and CEO of the University of Michigan Alumni Association, noted that the crises that befell UVA, Penn State and Virginia Tech all “had the potential to destroy the institutions, so we hope the discussion helps advancement officers prepare” for the unthinkable.
Tillar encouraged conference attendees to “think of yourself as the head of a family” during a campus crisis in order to make sound decisions.
Williams of Penn State echoed Faulders’ explanation of having to serve the alumni as well as the administration. He added that, despite the emotionally turbulent atmosphere on campus, the alumni association continued to hold regular events for socializing and job networking.
“People were counting on us to fulfill our mission,” Williams said. “There was fundamental work we had to do.”
Williams said he and his colleagues are particularly proud of how the alumni magazine and related communication channels became trusted information sources among Penn State graduates. In opinion surveys last year, the alumni were asked to indicate the extent to which they trusted certain groups to provide them with information about the university.
As recently as last December, only 3 percent of respondents said they “completely trusted” Penn State’s board of trustees, and only 6 percent said the same for the university administration.
However, 25 percent of alumni deemed the alumni association “completely” trustworthy for this topic, Williams said.