Crisis communications: ask the lawyers first

Interesting views from a conference of education lawyers in the USA as reported in the Chroncicle.

Specific comments, in a post-Virginia Tech context, included:

Avoid email

“Those e-mail messages always come back to haunt you,” Wendy S. White, a vice president and general counsel at the University of Pennsylvania, said at the annual conference of the National Association of College and University Attorneys. “It is especially bad when people discuss preliminary findings or theories.” Such messages are almost always found by lawyers for plaintiffs as part of the discovery process in a lawsuit, and even if the findings or theories are only preliminary, they could be difficult for institutions to defend later.

You can’t avoid email

Robb Jones, another lawyer on a panel with Ms. White, said many attorneys “wish there was no such things as e-mail,” but “that’s just the way we communicate.” Asked if clients should communicate by instant message or text message, which don’t leave the same electronic trail that e-mail does, Mr. Jones demurred. “I have never gotten that far in thinking about it,” he said in the interview. “A lot of businesses — I don’t know about colleges and universities so much — have banned [instant messaging]. It’s just too much of a distraction.”

Get the lawyers to decide the line

A speaker at another session, Christopher Simpson, a former university administrator who is now a consultant in crisis communications, said lawyers must become more involved in crafting a response, and protecting the image of an institution, when a crisis or tragedy strikes. “If things go badly, I contend you haven’t done your job,” he admonished the lawyers here. He said that lawyers think too much about legal minefields that speaking to reporters might create, and not about a consistent message that will portray an institution in the most positive light possible.

Thinking about the practicalities in a crisis situation, and in particular in a UK context, it would seem to me that trying to do the right thing would always take priority over consulting the lawyers. As for email, in many crisis situations it would not seem to be the ideal communications tool in any case.

When is a chaplain not a chaplain?

Answer: When s/he is a ‘Life-Skills Assistant’

Iowa State Mulls a ‘Life-Skills Assistant,’ Not a Chaplain reports the Chronicle

Iowa State University’s Athletics Council has approved a plan to hire a “volunteer life-skills assistant” to provide religious counseling to players on the football team, in a way that officials said differs from the work of a chaplain, the Iowa State Daily reported. An original plan to hire a chaplain drew protests from faculty members who said it would violate a constitutional ban on government establishments of religion.

All very amusing in a “PC gone mad” kind of way. But why does the football team need its own religious counselling?

“Dysfunctional” universities

Extract from an article in the Chronicle

India’s Prime Minister Assails Universities as Below Average and ‘Dysfunctional’

India’s prime minister revealed on Friday that almost two-thirds of the nation’s universities and 90 percent of its degree-granting colleges are rated as below average and that university curricula are typically not synchronized with the needs of employers or job seekers.

Earlier this month, a local newspaper disclosed details of a confidential report on Indian higher education by the National Assessment and Accreditation Council. The newspaper said that the council had assessed 123 universities and 2,956 colleges across India and found that 90 percent of colleges and 68 percent of universities were of middling or poor quality — statistics that Mr. Singh confirmed in his speech.

The newspaper also said the council had found that 25 percent of faculty positions at universities remain vacant, 57 percent of teachers in colleges lack either an M.Phil. or a Ph.D., and there is only one computer for every 229 students, on average, in colleges. In India, colleges are mostly affiliated with universities and usually offer undergraduate education only.

The prime minister also sharply criticized the governance at India’s state universities, saying, “a dysfunctional education system can only produce dysfunctional future citizens.” He expressed concern that, in many states, the appointment of university officials — including vice chancellors, the chief-executive position — has been politicized. “There are complaints of favoritism and corruption,” he said. “We should free university appointments from unnecessary interventions on the part of governments and must promote autonomy and accountability.”

Elaborating on an announcement this month that the government will set up at least one central university in each of the 16 states that lack one, Mr. Singh said a total of 30 new central universities would be opened across the country.

This is reminiscent of concerns about the original 1993-95 TQA grading of “satisfactory” and comments about the new RAE descriptors possibly implying that (depending on the outcomes in 2008) much of UK university research is not of international standard.

Describing your country’s universities in this way does seem rather extreme – it is not clear to me how 30 new universities are going to solve this problem either. But at least the ambition for change is there

Honorary degree not revoked

A story in the Chronicle which follows up an earlier post on this topic

University of Massachusetts trustees have voted to rebuke Robert G. Mugabe but not to rescind the honorary degree UMass presented to the Zimbabwean president in 1986. According to The Boston Globe, the trustees agreed that Mr. Mugabe has presided over the ruin of his country, but concluded that they needed to establish an official policy on revoking honorary degrees before actually doing it.

Whilst it is reasonable to lack a specific policy on revoking honoraries, it does seem a little surprising that they would not have decided that they had the power to do this in any case. However, these things are far from simple.

Revolting people

Writing about Revolts.

A website overseen by Professor Philip Cowley from Nottingham (he of frequent media comments on these matters) which offers the following:

This is an academic research project looking at the way MPs and peers vote. It will be (or at least aims to be) useful for journalists, politicians, lobbyists, and members of the public interested in parliamentary behaviour. We’re interested in all votes, whipped and unwhipped and all parties. Our main interest – as the majority party in the Commons – is on Labour, but we’re also interested in looking at the Conservatives and Lib Dems, as well as the minor parties. We publish regular briefing papers analysing key events – such as the Foundation Hospitals rebellion or the revolts over top-up fees – as well as more detailed research papers. Over the last year our research has featured in most UK newspapers (including the Telegraph, Guardian, Independent and Times) as well as being used widely on TV and Radio (including Newsnight, The World Tonight, BBC News 24 and so on).

It might go into a little too much detail for some but I must admit to finding it unhealthily fascinating.

Brightest of tomorrow’s students don’t understand fees

Another shock story from the Education Guardian on fees:

A study published today Pure Potential, an independent campaign group which aims to increase access to university, shows that 75% of bright Year 12 state school students feel they do not understand university tuition fees. This is 12% more than last year.

The survey shows that this year’s school leavers are just as anxious and uninformed about the higher education choices available to them as pupils were 12 months ago.

Most know little or nothing at all about the financial support available to them at university (93% compared with 95% in 2006) and 29% are less likely to go to university because of tuition fees – a 2% increase on last year’s figures.

Some 30% do not feel at all confident about the university process, up slightly from 28% last year.

I must admit to having no knowledge of this organisation or its survey but these results all seem terribly vague – what does it mean to be lacking in confidence “about the university process”? Most of these students (60%) will also be the first in the family to go to HE and therefore a bit of uncertainty is hardly surprising.

And then we have this other helpful nugget:

According to the survey findings, siblings (33%) and newspapers (22%) are the main sources of information about university, with school career services (12%) and other initiatives (7%) having less influence.

I think this might have something to do with it – if tomorrow’s students are depending on their siblings and newspapers for factual information on fees and financial support it is hardly surprising they know next to nothing. Not a good position to be in given that the DfES has tried hard to get the facts across but still far from sensational.

International fees “vastly inflated”?

An entertaining story in the Education Guardian

Foreign students charged hugely inflated tuition fees, survey reveals

Universities and colleges in the UK charge international students vastly inflated fees to study at both undergraduate and postgraduate level, according to new figures compiled exclusively for

The Royal Veterinary College, Imperial College London and Oxford University charge international students more than £17,000 a year for undergraduate courses.

This compares with £3,070 a year charged for undergraduate courses for home and EU students and the highest public university fee for postgraduate study of £9,500 at Manchester University.

Now granted that this is based on a range of publicly available data from institutions and has some accuracy. But the core assumption, that it is the International fee rather than the Home/EU fee which is wrong, is unsupported by any evidence whatsoever. And why even bother doing this at UG level where there is capping (different in different parts of the UK) on the Home/EU fee?

An interesting new take on student support

See this service which will be launched in September:

Academic Support Ltd

I find it difficult to extract many positives from this (beyond grudging praise for web-based entrepreneurs) but can easily think of a whole series of concerns. Not least of which is that, however you dress it up, the qualifications expected of the tutors at the heart of the system are slightly below those of your typical academic.

Student housing cliche city

The Guardian has story on buy-to-let and studentification in Nottingham

No danger of a hackneyed reference to the city or a balanced assessment of the impact institutions make here:

Nottingham’s forest of housing despair

Landlords aiming to make a fast buck out of a huge population of student tenants are taking a heavy toll on the city’s social fabric. Tony Levene reports from the front line.

The citizens of Nottingham are calling on the sheriff to take a leaf out of Robin Hood’s book and tackle the buy-to-let landlords who take homes out of the reach of ordinary families.

The city’s buy-to-let boom has created whole areas where local parents and young couples are outgunned financially by landlords, many of whom do not live there. But the city council intends to fight back. It is now demanding changes in the rules that would give it more power to control buy-to-let.

A tour of the city indicated that small-time landlordism and the transient student population it encourages have turned some areas into “tips” – overflowing wheelie bins and rubbish-strewn front gardens. “Buy-to-let has caused the physical degradation of the area. Landlords don’t clean up the mess of old furniture and disused pizza cartons, and the students, many from wealthy backgrounds, contribute no council tax,” says Lenton resident Maya Fletcher.

And so it goes on…

Interesting to note of course that the Guardian has on its website over 1,000 articles on buy-to-let. A fair proportion of these might be seen as promoting the fast buck idea which is now someone else’s fault.

Exporting “knowledge services”: we all deserve an award for this

The Guardian, reporting on a publication from the Work Foundation, comments that the UK’s exporting of “knowledge services”, which includes universities delivering courses to international students, is outstanding

the UK sells more knowledge services – which includes the money foreign students spend on British universities – as a proportion of total exports than any other major economy.

“Overall, the UK’s export performance is comparable to many other nations – unexceptional, in other words,” says the foundation. But, according to official government statistics, “our export performance in knowledge services … is truly outstanding. In 2005, the UK exported about £75bn of knowledge services – 170% up on a decade earlier (£28bn). This accounts today for about a quarter of all UK exports.”

A quarter of all exports! This really is a pretty staggering contribution. But are we going to be able to sustain it?

No more fees in Scotland: how relaxing

The minority SNP administration is set to scrap the fees paid by Scottish students (in Scotland) with the support of the LibDems (who were party to the introduction of fees).

It will be interesting to see what the consequences of this might be for funding Scottish institutions. It is perhaps slightly surprising that Universities Scotland is “entirely relaxed” about the situation – you would think that there might be just a little hint of anxiety there.

See Guardian and BBC for (slightly divergent) details.

Facebook-ish: for the slightly older generation

See the E2 site here

Am slightly ashamed to admit that I have never heard of Elon University but they seem to have done something mildly interesting here.

If you look at the sample profile (bottom left) you get an idea of the Facebookishness of the project. They are claiming some success though.

Graduation – Harvard Style

Writing about web page,,1800674,00.html

Although I’ve not actually seen one yet, my guess is that our Graduation ceremonies actually have a lot going for them – better than this description of Harvard last year in any case.


The morning graduation exercises were held in a steady drizzle, with hundreds of umbrellas making it impossible for those stranded in the back to see anything. Then, that afternoon, when outgoing (purged) president Larry Summers and venerable newsman Jim Lehrer took the stage for the big Ciceronian round–up, the powers–that–be decided to hold the event indoors to keep the alumni from catching a chill, again condemning a sea of graduates and their waterlogged parents to tread water in the rain. There, those not being treated for pneumonia or hypothermia could watch the speeches on TV monitors.