There’s no underselling how important professors are in our society. We rely on them to shape the next generation and instill the knowledge students need as they prepare to head into the workforce. However, it’s becoming clear that when they’re not careful, their personal biases can overshadow the education their institutions had promised and create a toxic environment for students.
Millions are talking about a professor and administrator at Duke University who recently sent an email asking students not to speak Chinese. The incident, circulated by Bloomberg, The New York Times, and the BBC, has spurred discussions worldwide around bias in higher education. It has left people wondering what colleges are doing to protect students from individual bias and harassment, and just how much a professor or administrator can damage their institution’s brand through the things they say.
Duke will likely withstand this PR incident. However, many institutions see much larger repercussions when a scandal breaks loose. A paper from Harvard Business School shows that colleges that receive long-form news coverage about a high-profile scandal can experience a 10% drop in applications for over two consecutive years. This is equivalent to losing 10 ranks in the U.S. News and World Report college rankings. As a college or university, your reputation impacts both the quality and quantity of donations, enrollment, and funding. Though your school’s overall reputation is made up of many components, it hinges largely upon the administrators and faculty members you hire to build your image.
Administrators and faculty are the builders, creators, and guardians of the institutional brand. Graduate students often identify themselves with their supervisors, and even prospective undergraduates look up professors and departments before they apply. But as revelations of toxic behavior in higher education become more common through social media and major press outlets, what administrators and faculty say can be turned against them as well as your school. While it’s true that professors have come under attack for the opinions they share, the reality is that academic opinions will exist as long as academia does. What’s far more dangerous and costly is when a professor or administrator creates an environment where harassment and discrimination can fester.
The numbers are staggering. Dartmouth’s alleged ignorance of sexual harassment in the psychology and neuroscience department recently led to a class action lawsuit for $70 million. USC recently reached a $215 million settlement after 500 students came forward to accuse a gynecologist of misconduct. Many of these cases can be detected before it’s too late. A world-renowned professor at NYU who ended up in the news for sexual harassment had been inappropriately emailing a direct report for years. A vice president at Duke who has become notorious for insensitive remarks had a history of controversial posts on public social media. Harassment and discrimination scandals can shake a university to the core. When so many of them can be traced online, not taking action to stop them early is a costly oversight.
Don’t confuse a controversial academic opinion with genuine forms of incivility, harassment, and bias that can harm your institution. Students, alumni, and funders today all demand more from colleges and universities. Your success rides on your school’s reputation—and the way to prevent the headlines you won’t see begins with setting a higher standard for how administrators and faculty embody your brand.