For the past few weeks, a colleague and I have been digging into the public relations and crisis management efforts that played out at the University of Virginia during a leadership upset in June. In about a month’s time, the board racked up more than $250,000 in bills from two consulting firms that attempted to explain the board’s actions to a frustrated university community and control the protests that emerged on campus and online. Board members later paid those bills.
(You can read the full article here: “At U-Va., e-mails show faltering efforts at crisis control.” And here are related e-mail documents, along with annotations: “The U-Va. crisis communications effort.”)
As the board and others released statements to explain their positions, faculty, alumni and other supporters of U-Va. President Teresa A. Sullivan payed close attention to the wording in those statements. Here are a few phrases that were quoted over and over again:
“Philosophical difference of opinion.” When U-Va. governing board leaders Helen Dragas and Mark Kington announced in a statement that Sullivan would soon step down, the only hint of an explanation was contained in a quote from Sullivan that stated: “Although the board and I have a philosophical difference of opinion, I will always treasure having had the opportunity to work with so many gifted faculty and staff, talented students, and loyal alumni.” In August, reporters asked Sullivan what had happened, and she responded: "You know, I think in the press release we formulated it as a ‘philosophical difference of opinion.’ I’m not sure I can improve on that.”
“Strategic dynamism.” Hours after the announcement of Sullivan's resignation, a U-Va. business school trustee, Peter Kiernan, sent a mass e-mail stating that he and “two important Virginia alums” knew about Sullivan’s forced resignation weeks ahead of time. The e-mail was widely circulated and led to rumors that a small group of powerful donors had orchestrated the ouster. The e-mail repeatedly used the abstract biz-school-sounding phrase “strategic dynamism,” a term that came to represent differing opinions on how best to run a university.
“Thomas Jefferson.”The name of the university’s famous founder was invoked again and again, as everyone pondered what he would do in this situation. The board’s first statement contained this TJ quote: “The great object of our aim from the beginning has been to make this Establishment the most eminent in the United States.” When Sullivan addressed the board on June 18, she picked this one: “as new discoveries are made, new truth discovered and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times.” And those protesting the ouster often cited this one: “It is more honorable to repair a wrong than to persist in it.”
“Modicum of candor.” Early on, the U-Va. student newspaper requested e-mails exchanged by Dragas and Kington in the days before the ouster was announced. In one of those e-mails, which is a public record, Kington contemplated communicating with a reporter, telling Dragas and another university official: “Maybe a modicum of candor is called for— Helen, your thoughts?” Those seeking a full explanation of Sullivan’s ouster began using the phrase “modicum of candor” in their pleas.
“Authoritative and resolute.” On June 14, Dragas asked the university’s provost and chief operating officer to issue a joint statement “advising the University and Medical center faculty and staff that you understand that the BOV action is authoritative and resolute, and that you will support the interim and the next president.“ The first draft of the statement, written by the provost, did not include the words authoritative or resolute. The final draft, written by the COO, included that language — angering faculty and staff who disagreed with the action.
“#BOV.” Each state school has a different system of public governance. Most public universities in Virginia are governed by a “board of visitors” that is appointed by the governor. The leader of the board is the “rector.” In June, these odd words became an even stronger part of the U-Va. lexicon. So, too, did the Twitter hashtag, #BOV.
What phrases and buzzwords did I forget? Go ahead and post them in the comments section below.