Everett Anderson’s aspiration was to become a teacher, a goal he pursued d …
College Presidents’ PR Blame Game Following Disastrous Hearing
The recent appearance of three esteemed university presidents on Capitol Hill to testify about campus antisemitism has been widely criticized as a debacle. The fallout from the hearing has led to a national backlash, resulting in at least one resignation and calls for further action.
However, behind the scenes, questions are being raised about who was paid to provide advice during this disastrous public relations moment. Some of the most prominent experts in the field of crisis communications were advising the university leaders. But now, these crisis communicators find themselves facing their own PR crisis as they remain tight-lipped amidst the criticism.
University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill has resigned from her position, while MIT President Sally Kornbluth and Harvard President Claudine Gay have faced calls for their firing. Gay is also dealing with a plagiarism scandal that has escalated since the hearing.
Harvard and Penn turned to attorneys at the renowned law firm WilmerHale for guidance in preparing for the hearing. WilmerHale also had some communication with MIT. Harvard sought the expertise of crisis communications specialist Risa Heller, while Penn enlisted the help of PR adviser Susan Lagana from D.C. firm Invariant. Penny Pritzker, former Commerce Secretary and head of Harvard’s governing body, brought in PR giant Edelman to assist with the college’s general response to the war, but not specifically for the hearing. Edelman declined to comment on the matter.
In the lead-up to the hearing, the university presidents met privately with the committee chair to gain insights into what to expect. However, their preparation did not seem to help as they struggled to provide clear answers during the hearing, especially when asked about calling for the genocide of Jews on their campuses.
Interestingly, the advisers have remained silent in the face of criticism. They are not commenting on the situation, leaving some to question the value of the advice given in this high-stakes situation.
The fallout from this disastrous hearing continues to reverberate throughout Washington. Some competitors of the advisers are even trying to capitalize on the situation by poaching officials affiliated with the universities. The incident is likely to be included in the year-end takeaways of political analyst Bruce Mehlman.
While some sources sympathetic to the advisers claim that the university presidents failed to follow the advice they were given, others defend the training provided. They argue that the leaders were instructed to lead with empathy and values and avoid legal jargon. However, critics argue that the hearing demonstrated the inadequacy of the preparation.
The advisers involved, including WilmerHale and the universities themselves, have all declined to comment on the matter. Only time will tell the long-term impact of this disastrous hearing on the reputations of the university presidents and their advisers.
Meanwhile, the relationship between universities and lawmakers in Washington has become increasingly fraught. Republicans have long criticized the progressive leanings of university campuses, and Democrats are also showing signs of fraying relationships with elite universities. Congress is eyeing new restrictions on foreign funding to campuses, and federal funding for universities is at risk.
The hearing also highlighted the challenges university presidents face in navigating hate speech policies on their campuses. While universities generally allow hate speech unless it rises to the level of a true threat, the nuances of these legal boundaries can be difficult to communicate to the public.
Speculation about the preparation for the hearing suggests that lawyers may have dominated the process instead of communications experts. This approach may have played a role in the less-than-effective performance of the university presidents during the hearing.