Dealing with Disaster

As administrators and professors at several colleges stand accused, experts offer advice on wading through legal and P.R. issues.
August 2, 2006

A respected chair of religious studies at Elizabethtown College, in Pennsylvania, is arrested for allegedly making Internet plans to meet an undercover agent who was posing as a 12-year-old girl. A long-time dean of African-American affairs at the University of Virginia announces his retirement just days after admitting he lied to investigators regarding his “knowledge of the activities of a known drug dealer.” And a director of undergraduate studies at Eastern Oregon University is placed on paid leave after torrid allegations of rape are exposed.

All of the events occurred during the hot, hot month of July, much to the chagrin at administrators at the spotlighted institutions. While it isn’t every day that colleges and universities see top administrators or professors accused of or involved in major crimes, institutions often have to make fast-paced employment decisions that have immediate impact on individuals and reputations.

“There is just such shock that someone you know could have possibly done such a thing,” said Ann Franke, president of Wise Results, a firm that advises colleges on legal risks. Franke, a longtime expert on higher education law and risk management, has helped several administrators deal with real-time crises.

“It can turn your professional and personal life upside down,” she said. “You just have to drop everything to deal with it.”

On Friday -- soon after police officials shared details of their Internet sting -- Elizabethtown President Theodore E. Long did just that, announcing the dismissal of David B. Eller, who, in addition to chairing the college’s religious studies program, also directed the Young Center, a campus facility focused on promoting the study of Anabaptist and Pietist groups. He’s also an ordained minister in the Church of the Brethren.

After the dismissal, the president said in a statement that Eller could “no longer serve the college with integrity or effectiveness.” The former employee now faces charges of attempted unlawful contact with a minor and criminal use of a computer.

Christopher Simpson, chief executive officer of SimpsonScarborough, a firm that advises colleges on press relations and marketing issues, said that Long’s actions were probably best for the institution’s image and reputation, regardless of whether Eller is found innocent or guilty in court.

Simpson says that historically in higher education, administrators have often tried to sweep such scandals under the proverbial rug. “But that’s changed dramatically in the past five years,” he says. “There is more of an understanding that institutions’ images are fragile.… More top administrators are realizing that they have to be open, accountable and transparent.”

Franke said that many university policies allow for summary dismissal in circumstances like those involving Eller, even before guilt or innocence is proven. She said, too, that many institutions tend to model their rules for faculty dismissal on policies established by the American Association of University Professors, which call for professors to be suspended with pay if they pose a significant threat to the reputation of an institution. Alleged crimes that are considered to be of “severe moral turpitude,” like intended sex with a minor, are usually administrative grounds for dismissal -- even at the accusation stage.

“People above them have to consider what impact the allegations will have on the reputation of the institution,” said Raymond D. Cotton, a Washington lawyer who represents boards and presidents in their negotiations over contracts. He said that in many instances administrators will err on the side of caution in order to protect the image of the institution.

But there's a flip-side to such caution: “Sometimes schools can injure the innocent,” said Cotton. “There are always legal risks if a university overreacts.”

Franke said that it’s much easier to proceed when an individual decides to resign or retire, as was the case with Virginia’s M. Rick Turner, who had served for 18 years as the university's dean of African-American affairs. The university had placed Turner on paid leave in mid-July after he signed an agreement with a federal prosecutor acknowledging that he misrepresented his knowledge of the activities of a "known drug dealer" in exchange for not being prosecuted. Further details on the case have not been released.

“It simplifies everything,” said Franke, “when an individual realizes that he should separate himself from an institution.”

For those who choose to remain -- as is the case with Robert Davis, director of undergraduate studies at Eastern Oregon -- paid leave is often used to give administrators more time to consult with lawyers, said Franke. Last week, a professor and a student filed lawsuits charging that Davis raped them after he allegedly drugged them while the three were attending a conference. A lawyer for Davis has said that the charges are untrue.

Franke believes that the extra time can be invaluable. “It’s easy in a moment of crisis and negative publicity to act with your gut instinct,” she said, “which can get you into trouble if your instincts don’t jibe with your institution’s policies.”

Cotton said that for a person in Davis’s position, administrators would probably have the legal leeway to dismiss him. “Most senior administrators below the president do not have written employment agreements,” he says. “They are at-will employees and can be fired for any legitimate reason.”

Simpson believes that in dealing with all scandals, administrators must be increasingly aware that every moment counts when it comes to institutional reputation. “More administrators are having to determine if they want to pull the trigger quickly," he said, noting that crisis and media training is becoming ever more popular. "It's a real balancing act."


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