Duquesne University found itself thrust into the fringe of national controversy and has gone viral on social media news feeds multiple times over the past month for stories that haven’t portrayed them in a favorable light. First came the Geraldo Rivera scandal where Duquesne kicked the Fox News Host off a panel on the JFK assassination following the man selfie he took and posted to his Twitter account. More recently, a scathing op-ed painted a nasty picture of the university’s adjunct employment policies and poor wages with the story of a woman who taught French for 25 years and died in poverty. Both pieces have different levels of seriousness with a different public response. Duquesne just looked backwards as the Geraldo story grew into a campy humor piece. On a positive note, Geraldo haters seemed to love it although they likely saw the silliness of Duquesne’s overreaction. Try as they might, Duquesne has failed to create much favorable spin in adjunct Mary Margaret Votjko’s tale of poverty, illness, mistreatment by the university and ultimately, her death. In the end, they looked heartless.
In the end, the attention Duquesne received for both stories was unnecessary and avoidable. For the future, here are some tips for them to stay out of the media spotlight or limit damage once they find themselves knee deep in it.
Stop Being Weird
Was the Geraldo photo bizarre in its own right?
Do you need a giant ego to take and post that kind of picture?
Would any university in the country, religious or not, respond the way Duquesne did?
Maybe, but we’re probably talking Oral Roberts or Bob Jones U and I wouldn’t proudly affiliate with that company.
The Geraldo banning caught fire for one simple reason. It was weird. You could laugh at it regardless of how you feel about Geraldo while poking fun of the university for kicking him off the panel. The question remains; should it have ever happened to begin with? When you do something absurd and relatively high profile like spurning a major US news personality for something that has largely become benign and even acceptable in American culture, you set yourself up for ridicule. Duquesne could have avoided the negative attention by turning a blind eye like 99% of American higher education institutions would have.
There is Conservative Cathlolic Dogma and then there is Duquesne
The Catholic church has a moral foundation on sexuality deeply rooted in tradition derived from scripture, pre-Christian culture and medieval theology. While I don’t agree with all of it on a personal level, the church’s institutions and its members have the obligation to do their best to live up to these expectations. However, I missed the doctrine of the shirtless man and the theology of union suppression in CCD.
Duquesne has hit the press in recent years fighting the more high profile Catholic battles. In 2011, they sued Highmark for issuing birth control to members on their insurance plan. This received plenty of social media backlash, but Duquesne acted within the context of Catholic teachings that started in 1930. With Geraldo, Duquesne went off the Catholic deep end with a decision based on no well known religious precedents.
Since associating with Duquesne as a undergrad in 1999, I’ve noticed the administration using Catholic morality as a means to justify a prevailing financial benefit. In 2001, they ended overnight opposite sex visits to Towers in order to avoid an insurance hike following a violent rampage by two football players (I bet you know which ones) the previous year. A female student signed in the pair after 11 o’clock and insurance threatened to raise rates if the university failed to increase visitation restrictions. They explained it to the students as Duquesne just trying to be more Catholic and left the insurance part out. They also made changes to greek life around then that I suspect had more to do with liability management than the dogma used to validate them. More recently, the university used its Catholic affiliation to deny adjuncts the opportunity to unionize. Once again, I’m confused as to the origins for moral conflict. Last time I checked, the Book of the Bottomline isn’t in the bible
Know When To Shut Up
Duquesne had been very good at just shutting up and in general, they provided only the necessary comments on the bad press of the past. The administration remained quiet following the football murders. There was policy response following the campus shootings of 2006 that nearly killed Sam Ashaolu, but few quotations or press releases came from the president’s office. When they did, they effectively portrayed the perpetrators as outsiders and the university largely escaped public and legal blame. They even did well keeping their mouth shut when Ashaolu later accused high ranking officials of advancing him through class effectively gifting him his diploma. To their credit, they shut it during Geraldo – gate. In other recent incidents, they’ve said too much and their response inflamed the situation causing the story to grow rather than go away.
When Duquesne dismissed Ron Everhart in the spring of 2012, the athletic department, president and board must have known how controversial moving on would be. After all, Everhart recorded the school’s first career winning record as coach in 30 years, had endeared himself to a high percentage of the fans and hadn’t endured a losing season since his first. Firing him was inflammatory by itself. The leaked letter took the story to the next level. In defense of the administration, we have no idea who leaked the letter though fans have speculated the name of our internal mole. Further, I agree with the competitive failings they cite for his dismissal. If Greg Amodio or Charles Dougherty secretly leaked it to help mollify doubt for the decision, they misjudged the manner in which fans and the media would respond. If someone else released the internal memo to shame the university officials for firing Everhart, it was a great success.
Until Duquesne responded to the op-ed of Votjko’s demise, the story was relatively local and compact. They countered with their own Post Gazette op-ed as well as another letter by VP John Plante to staff that went public. Again, they fanned the flames by responding and almost every liberal/progressive/pro-union online zine including Huffington Post picked up on the story painting Duquesne as the villain.
The problem was not that Duquesne responded. It was how they responeded. To me, they sounded like a defensive child caught red handed saying “I didn’t do nothin’ wrong. I even tried to fix it. Danny’s tellin’ stories.” While Duquesne does sound like they tried to help Votjko near the end, I think many looking at the big picture perceive their efforts as too little too late. Duquesne needed to realize they already lost this PR battle before they could respond. Their primary concern should not have been to save face, but to minimize damage. The way they countered played right into the Steel Workers hands. What at first was a local piece grew into a sensationalized story used to highlight a national struggle.
I’m not writing this essay to pile on or to continue to bash Duquesne. Had either the Geraldo incident or the Votjko op – ed occurred in isolation, this piece would not exist. I wrote it because the recent string of poor PR decisions keep getting worse and worse. What could have ended as a positive for the university turned into a black mark in regards to Geraldo. They should have ignored the photo and allowed him to lead the panel discussion. What should have remained a local interest story grew into a national blast thanks Duquesne’s hasty and hostile response to an otherwise ignorable op-ed. Honestly, I could sum my 1500 word critique into one brief sentence; stop being so damn stupid.
So I offer the following solution. WWGD? When in doubt or crisis, Dougherty, Plante or any other high profile administrator should ask him or herself “What Would Georgetown Do?” and act accordingly. Administrators at Catholic schools, not just Duquesne, should look at Georgetown as the shining model. I don’t care that they’re Jesuits and Duquesne is Spiritan especially when the guy calling the shots for Duquesne has been lay since 1988. Besides, everybody’s earthly boss is a Jesuit right now. It wouldn’t hurt to get on his good side. Duquesne has a simple choice. Start following the model of the most highly regarded Catholic institution for higher education in the country or continue to look like a bumbling, idiot brother.
Duquesne could become more like Georgetown not just in how they manage or avoid negative press, but how they create positive stories for themselves by simply doing better. Duquesne has created a long list of remarkable accomplishments from our continued assent towards recognition as a top 100 university to our role in rejuvenating Uptown to our increased enrollment in spite of the high costs of private education. Athletic success could soon join the list. However, those stories get glossed over or even forgotten when you have the month Duquesne did. They need to do a better job of creating the positive story rather than becoming a beacon for the negative.