Heat Map: Are You Sacrificing Your Reputation to Protect Sacred Cows?

By Janice M. Abraham    //    Volume 22,  Number 5   //    September/October 2014

What are the sacred cows at your institution? Every college or university has programs and people that are a great source of alumni and student pride. But while they are an important part of the campus experience, these revered traditions or people can present risks when boards turn a blind eye to any issues that their existence raises.

In fact, that blind-eye mentality is part of what makes these traditions—Division I athletic programs, marching bands, or even esteemed faculty—sacred cows, which Merriam-Webster defines as “someone or something that has been accepted or respected for a long time and that people are afraid or unwilling to criticize or question.”

Are your institution’s legendary programs, those traditions that define it and set it apart from other colleges and universities, immune from questioning at the board level? Or are you willing to take a role in ensuring the health of your institution by challenging the sacred cows, following up on rumors, and responding to reports of wrongdoing?

Many board members have had a role in the esteemed traditions on their campus, whether through athletics, the debate team, the marching band, the Greek system, or annual events such as bonfires and festivals. Or perhaps you remember a favorite professor, known for bonding with the students on a deep level and hosting them at his home. Your fond memories are an important part of your college experience.

Yet the campus environment has evolved significantly over the past few decades in ways that impact the type of behavior that is believed to be acceptable. Consider, for example, that when each generation wants to “better” or one-up the previous generation, activities that are left unchecked can become more and more outlandish and inappropriate. The definition of hazing becomes increasingly problematic with each decade, as students try out new—often more grossly inappropriate—tactics. Combine that with the power of social media, and your students’ “hijinks” can go viral.

At that point, your reputation is at stake—as is the health and safety of your student body. Who knew what, and when? How could this solid institution, with this favored program or professor, let this happen? Who is at fault? Could your esteemed researcher really be guilty of fraudulent practices? Could your star athlete really have been involved in a sexual assault?

You can and should take action today to ensure total transparency and candor around all activities at your institution. Protect your institution and your students from scandals involving an iconic coach or program by:

Taking inventory. A good first step is to identify your sacred cows and be alert to them. What programs or notable people define your university? What risks do they present?

Developing a crisis response plan. These plans are always important, but especially for sacred cows because of the threat to your institution’s financial and reputational health if a scandal erupts. How will you respond to the crisis? How will you handle the news media?

Standing behind the president in making the tough decisions. So often, when an incident is uncovered, several red flags were missed. It is essential that you support your president in making unpopular decisions in response to small incidents or red flags before they escalate. It is easier to raise questions early and take corrective actions in the name of student safety or educational mission before your college or university ends up defending its practices in court. No one wants to suspend or cancel a favored program—but the well-being of your community and your institution’s reputation are worth it.

Let the traditions continue. Let your institution’s reputation shine through the strength of the activities and programs for which it is known. And at the same time, start a new tradition among your board and administration of being open and candid so programs aren’t treated as sacred cows, but as treasured parts of your institution that deserve to be in the spotlight only for the positive attributes they bring to your students and your campus.

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