Tragedy, scandal don’t have to define a school, experts say

When a university is the setting for acts of gruesome violence or an unsettling scandal that attracts national attention, its name can quickly become synonymous with that tragedy.

The words “Kent State” still conjure memories of four unarmed student protesters killed by Ohio National Guard gunfire in 1970. “Virginia Tech” is how many refer to the worst campus massacre in history, when a student gunman killed 32 people in 2007 before fatally shooting himself. “Penn State” is a reminder of the 10 young boys allegedly molested by a former assistant football coach.

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How long does it take for an institution to escape that label, for its noteworthy programs, acclaimed faculty and bright students to outshine its darkest hour? A decade? A generation? Several generations?

The connection will probably always be there, and these tragedies are revisited every time similar events occur. That’s why national news media rushed to Virginia Tech on Thursday upon hearing reports of shots fired, two dead and a four-hour lockdown.

At a Friday news conference , Tech’s head spokesman, Lawrence G. Hincker, told reporters: “It’s obvious the reason why you all are here is because this is a wanton, random act of violence on the campus with the name Virginia Tech. I don’t believe you’d be here if that was otherwise the case.”

Despite the lingering associations, experts say major universities can weather most controversies with their reputations largely intact. And with the help of aggressive marketing and of rallying supporters, university business typically continues as usual — students apply, enroll and graduate, faculty are recruited and hired, alumni donate money, athletic teams play and research dollars roll in.

“People remember the tragedy, but not that it’s the fault of the school,” said Ronald Goodstein, associate professor of marketing at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business. That’s why he said it’s important for school officials to immediately memorialize the victims, support those affected and determine what could be done to prevent problems.

Goodstein said the shooting at Virginia Tech on Thursday, although a tragic loss of life, showed the country that the school had changed its emergency notification system to protect the campus from what appears to have been a random act of violence.

It can be difficult for universities to measure their reputation and the true impact of negative publicity. But officials typically point at alumni donations, application numbers and rankings.

After the 2007 shooting, Tech leaders carefully crafted their public messages as they responded to an influx of media requests while trying to protect the university’s image. Their cause was aided by alumni, students and others who rallied around the university, voiced support online and donated about $10 million to the Hokie Spirit Memorial Fund.

When the university resumed fundraising that summer, Hincker said, it had no problem keeping up with previously set campaign goals.

At first, Tech officials worried that the massacre would scare away students who had been admitted that year, Hincker said, but only five out of about 12,000 accepted students withdrew their applications for that reason. Enrollment numbers that fall followed expectations.

“I think those are the kinds of statistics that tell a lot about an institution,” Hincker said.

Applications to Tech rose from 19,427 for the class that entered in fall 2007 to 20,612 for fall 2008 and 21,053 for fall 2009. For fall 2010, applications fell to 19,981. But for fall 2011, the total rebounded to 20,828. Over the years, Hincker said, incoming students have had increasingly high grades and test scores.

Applications are often the first data point examined after a major incident, “because it will change overnight if there is a problem and it will rise overnight if things are good” — such as an unexpected sporting victory, said Kelly O’Keefe, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Brandcenter.

Penn State’s new president announced last month that applications were up 4 percent from last year, which was a record year, and only eight prospective students had withdrawn applications because of the scandal. The university’s career services office said that there has been no change in employers recruiting Penn State students and graduates but that it provided students with talking points to use if asked about the situation.

Another key measure of reputation is U.S. News & World Report’s ranking of top colleges. The list doesn’t track the impact of specific campus events, although it is possible for those outcomes to be reflected in a reputation survey filled out by peer schools or by application numbers, said Robert J. Morse, director of data research for the list. Many factors go into a ranking, which can be affected in many ways, so it’s difficult to connect a rise or fall in them to specific events.

Small successes “eliminate a little bit of the stigma,” O’Keefe said. “But that stigma lasts for years.”

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