By David F. Pendrys
Universities are not monoliths, they consist of multiple groups, whether it be university leadership, the academic staff that work for them, athletics staff the faculty, and the students, so while a brand and a name tries to wrap all these groups into one, that is often not the case. The President of Westfield State University recently resigned, and his actions should not be seen as reflective of the university as a whole. However, it’s a danger to universities and their branding overall when things go awry either within their athletics department or elsewhere because there is no doubt going to be some who temper the enthusiasm in the face of scandal.
Whether it’s a division 1 powerhouse in trouble like Penn State or numerous others in recent memory who had problems related directly to athletics staff, or whether it’s at schools like UConn, Yale, Wesleyan and SCSU which faced severe criticism regarding how sexual harassment claims are treated the question is out there.
Personally, as someone who is a fan of college sports, I struggle with this question and I am troubled. When UConn President Susan Herbst took to the podium to address sexual assault concerns, a press conference, that led to major criticism, she stood in front of the athletics inspired UConn logo she herself instituted (Hartford Courant). As reporters cover the story from many angles, even Courant sports columnist Jeff Jacobs has joined the pursuit trying to get to the bottom of whether an athlete was involved in one of the cases and in recent days former football coach Paul Pasqualoni has been questioned on what he knew about a case (Huffington Post). Thus UConn which relies on athletics for needed publicity found the overall campus scandal twisted into its athletics narrative. At the other schools its a simpler question of whether one can cheer on the logo and the name even as questions are raised by what that name stands for.
On the one hand athletics teams are often seen as standard bearers for the schools, the representation of the school to the country in the case of big time sports, or just a valuable part of the campus community. So as the school goes so do the colors they represent.
On the other hand, is the question of who owns the brand, can a school’s reputation and all that it stands for be defined by the leadership that makes mistakes. Should a botany student on one side of campus be ashamed of his school because of the actions of an administrator across campus. Should a volleyball player throw down their uniform because of the actions of a campus office? I don’t know. Should the fans temper their enthusiasm?
I see merits to both arguments, though I also am troubled by the charges that many universities are facing. (More on that here if you wish.) I have gone to a lot of sporting events and interviewed a lot of athletes in what to me is a positive environment. They are not responsible for what goes on in the halls of power. Just as the many faculty members and non athlete students, unless involved in the scandals, are not responsible either. But look at the media reports, on the same front page you’ll see a headline regarding the UConn sexual assault case, and later on a preview of UConn basketball. The name is attached to both.
I have two degrees on my wall from the University of Connecticut, no scandal is going to take those or my achievements away. The complainants in the sexual assault cases said “we’re huskies too” (CT News Junkie) implying they want the brand to cover them too and that they are proud of it even as they bravely challenge the system and demand change in it. Obviously people will fill the stands at games for all the colleges involved in scandal, but I still wonder, should they until the problems that curse these institutions are addressed meaningfully, and if they didn’t would they get addressed faster? I don’t know.