harvard public relations

It’s still so early in this year’s college term, the incoming freshman still don’t know their way around campus, but the communications teams at some of the most prominent colleges in the country have been hard at work for weeks, trying to put out PR fires and keep narratives from spinning out of control.

At Ohio State, the universities vaunted football program begins the regular season without its superstar coach, Urban Meyer, who was suspended in the wake of allegations he did nothing about spousal abuse being conducted by a member of his staff.

While that situation is ongoing, the NCAA finally closed the book on the Larry Nassar crisis at Michigan State. The Association determined that MSU handled the Nassar situation well and bore no more culpability in the incidents that sent Nassar to prison for life. Now, MSU officials may still catch legal heat, but they are in the clear with regard to the NCAA.

In both of these cases, the narratives coming from the schools worked to distance the colleges’ officials from the person at the center of the PR firestorm. MSU eventually succeeded, while the proverbial jury is still out at OSU.

Speaking of juries, there’s a third case disrupting the beginning of the school year at one of the nation’s oldest and most prestigious universities: Harvard. Recently, a group of Asian-American students sued Harvard, alleging discriminatory policies based on unfair affirmative action based admissions policies.

Legal experts see the case as more of a referendum on affirmative action on college campuses than a critique of Harvard’s practices, but that’s not really how it’s being portrayed in the media. Harvard’s communications team is having to field questions demanding that the school answer the allegations that it has been frequently unfair to students of Asian descent, as well as others who claim to have been denied admission based on racial grounds.

At the core of the legal case and the media being produced about it is a description of Harvard’s “personal rating system” the school uses to rate applicants and determine those who will be accepted into the school. With that already hanging over their heads, Harvard learned, last week, that the Justice Department agrees with the complaint, saying Harvard has failed to prove their admissions policies do not put Asians at a disadvantage.

Facing the lawsuit, a string of negative headlines, and the heavy hand of the federal government, Harvard offered the following statement in defense of its common practice:

“Harvard does not discriminate against applicants from any group… (the university) has a legal right to consider race as one factor among many in college admission… Colleges and universities must have the freedom and flexibility to create the diverse communities that are vital to the learning experience of every student, and Harvard is proud to stand with the many organizations and individuals who are filing briefs in support of this position today.”

The argument, then, is that Harvard proudly discriminates based on the intention of creating a more diverse student body. That may not be exactly what they said, or what they meant to say, but it’s what many people heard, so it’s a narrative they will have to content with going forward.

5WPR CEO Ronn Torossian

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