Monday, March 31, 2008

Perception Rules in the Court of Public Opinion

My area's two-year state-funded school, Monroe Community College, needs a president. The school's board of trustees gave guidelines to two search committees -- one appointed by the school's board, and the other, a standing faculty committee. Both committees recommended the same two men who are currently presidents at similar institutions elsewhere. The board accepted those names but then added two of their own -- a lawyer who is a former local politician and an entrepreneur who owns several restaurants. The two noneducators, who applied for the position, were interviewed by the committees but not recommended as finalists.

The noneducators are Republicans; nearly all of the members of the Board of Trustees are Republicans.

People have been going crazy the past couple of weeks, charging the board with political cronyism.

And the Board of Trustees is not saying a thing.

The college's foundation, charged with essential fundraising, sent the board a letter asking that it adhere to the committees' recommendations because, as the local business journal reported on Friday, "Community perceptions of county Republican influence on the search for a new president of Monroe Community College could affect efforts to raise private funds for the school."

And still, the board is not speaking out. (But it has postponed candidate interviews.)

Because of that silence, public perceptions of political monkeybusiness continue. And perception counts in the court of public opinion. Reality barely matters. This school's stakeholders -- students, faculty, leaders, funders, potential students, their parents -- etc., etc. -- have the perception that the Board of Trustees is Hell-bent on doing what's best for the Republican party, not what's best for the school. And it doesn't matter if that's not the truth. It is the only message people are hearing because those who don't want the noneducators added to the candidate list are the only ones speaking out. Theirs is the only perspective being heard.

Where are the school's PR people in all this mess? Why aren't they advising the head of the board to say anything more than, "The board wants to consider local candidates?" It's possible they are urging the board to be more forthcoming but don't have the power to make that happen. Organizations can have wise and skilled PR people working to guide them and still stumble when they don't follow that sage advice.

Regardless, when you're a public institution funded by taxpayer dollars, you can't hide -- literally -- in an ivory tower, assuming that you know more than the people you were put in place to serve -- even if you do. When controversy generates daily headlines, speak up. Educate us. Tell us why your approach is the best. C-o-m-m-u-n-i-c-a-t-e. As long as you act like you're hiding something, your constituents will think you are.

No comments: