College Flunks Trust, Reputation Test

While the 2012 Edelman Trust Barometer doesn’t include the academic world in its rankings, it would be a good bet that people have a decent amount of trust in institutions of higher learning. After all, colleges and universities are imparting strong values as well as knowledge to students, aren’t they?

Certainly not at Claremont McKenna College, a small liberal arts school in the Southern California city of Claremont. The school has admitted that for  the last six years the school had been exaggerating the collective SAT scores of incoming freshman for the last six years, which probably played a part in boosting the college’s rankings like the one in U.S. News & World Report.

The school’s president, Pamela B. Gann, said in a memo that “As an institution of higher education with a deep and consistent commitment to the integrity of all our academic activities, and particularly our reporting of institutional data, we take this situation very seriously.” She went on to state that a senior official in the admissions office had admitted doing the deed and resigned. End of story? Not by a long-shot. Now that the cat’s out of the bag at little Claremont, schools across the nation will be under the media microscope. And simply throwing an administrator under the bus won’t call off the media hounds.

This is an all-too-familiar case of a communications disconnect within an organization—and I don’t mean that in a PR sense. Three things are possible:

  • Departments at Claremont McKenna weren’t talking with each other.
  • There were no checks and balances in place that would prevent such a ruse from occurring.
  • Or, in the worst case, everybody knew that the scores were being inflated.

A few weeks ago Phil Burton, consultant at product marketing firm 208 Group, said something to me pertaining to the NetFlix pricing fiasco that is appropriate in this case: “PR can’t be like the people who follow the elephant and clean up the mess,” he said. Meaning, there needs to be a system in place deep within an organization that can nip these situations in the bud, or else some day academia will end up with a trust score as low as financial institutions.

–Scott Van Camp