Hit the Books and Get Rid of the Problem
Here’s a sordid story that you’ve probably not heard about on CNN or Fox News. Philip H. Brown, a tenured economics professor at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, resigned from
the school after the institution announced it was either that or he’d be fired because he’d violated students’ privacy. What was the violation? Oh, it’s a doozy—perfect for tabloid journalism.
On a trip to China in 2011, Brown placed a webcam in the bathrooms his female students would be using. As they traveled from province to province, the professor had apparently enlisted an unwitting student to place a first-aid kit containing a hidden webcam in the bathrooms.
The professor’s spying was uncovered when one of his students discovered a photo of her unclad bottom in the trash bin of Brown’s laptop, a computer that all students on the trip shared with their teacher. She had been searching the computer’s hard drive for a document she had inadvertently deleted. Colby College president William Adams wrote to students
and employees in late January that Brown had resigned after college officials told him they were prepared to fire him. Adams didn’t wait until Brown returned from the trip; he called him in China a day after receiving a complaint about the photos and verifying the claim was true. Adams also admitted that the matter had prompted an investigation by law enforcement, and that the college was cooperating fully with police.
In his letter to students and faculty, Adams also stated that the well-being of students was the college’s “utmost priority” and that “we do not and will not tolerate behavior that is antithetical to the fundamental values of our community. We take this matter very seriously. We took prompt action to address it, and we will continue to support the affected students in ways that are respectful of their privacy.”
Adams acted swiftly to reassure students, cooperated with the police investigation, and most important of all, got rid of the professor despite the fact that he had tenure, which allowed
the story to stay local and within the academic community. It went away fairly quickly and became a story of a perverted professor, rather than a problem with the university. School
officials rightfully distanced themselves from the conflict and made the issue about Brown.
Had the college dithered, the story would have had legs—lots of them. The college’s actions would have aroused suspicion and interest from outside journalists, and what has remained a shortlived local story might have become a national story, as well as the butt of the obligatory late-night jokes. It could have cost the college significant fund-raising dollars and state and federal grant money, and resulted in diminished enrollment. It would have affected not only Colby College’s reputation but also the personal reputation of its president; scandal tends to rub off on the people surrounding it. And it would have, had he not done the right thing.
Ronn Torossian is the CEO of 5W Public Relations