An exhaustive list of idiotic choices, petty misdemeanors, and federal crimes committed by college students would probably stretch from sea level to Earth’s outer orbit. But every now and then, students get up to something so controversial or so ill-advised, it attracts national attention and creates a massive PR headache for school administrators or business execs to deal with. From racist behavior to NCAA rules violations to more racist behavior, here is some of the most convincing proof that there really is such a thing as bad publicity.
In early 2008, student Max Karson of UC’s paper the Campus Press created a storm of bad publicity for the school by penning two articles entitled “If It’s War the Asians Want … It’s War They’ll Get” and “No Hablo Ingles.” Supposedly intended as some kind of Jonathan Swift-esque satire on race relations, the “War” article included lines like, “Captured Asians will be dragged to my apartment on the Hill and hog-tied.” Unfortunately for Karson, instead of provoking thought, he got outrage. Asian-American students and citizens throughout Colorado were incensed, prompting the chancellor to issue an apology and the paper’s editors to suspend the entire opinion section until they could all get some much-needed diversity awareness training.
A nice big mess landed in the lap of UCLA administrators after student Alexandra Wallace decided March 13, 2011 was as good a day as any to become nationally famous for being a racist. On YouTube, Wallace uploaded a video of herself ranting about “Asian hordes” taking over and saying “ching chong ting tong” to each other on their cell phones in the library. The school moved quickly to distance itself from her, with Chancellor Gene D. Block issuing a statement and a video denouncing Wallace’s actions but declining to punish her. But by the time the video went viral, Wallace got death threats, and withdrew from UCLA, the story was everywhere from the L.A. Times to the New York Daily News, dragging UCLA’s name through the mud by association.
College football players breaking NCAA regulations is anything but unheard-of, but when the coach conspires to cover it up, then you’ve got a front page story and a PR catastrophe. With the school’s reputation still damaged from a slew of athletic program debacles in 2004, the December 2010 news that five OSU football players had traded team memorabilia with a drug-dealing tattoo parlor owner in exchange for tattoos was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Then that paralyzed camel was squashed by the 10-ton revelation that head coach Jim Tressel knew about the violations for months and did nothing (other than lie about how he would do something). The result for OSU was a one-year bowl ban, $7.7 million in payouts and losses, and a perhaps permanent rep for shady dealings.
This case is one of only two on our list (see number 10) where a college student created a PR nightmare by doing something admirable. While perusing Amazon job posting site Mechanical Turk in early 2009, Arlen Parsa discovered a listing offering $.65 for five-star reviews of Belkin products on Amazon. He did some digging and traced the postings to a Belkin employee who had posted similar ads on other sites. Within hours of posting the story to his blog, CNet, Engadget, Digg, Gizmodo, and other online outlets had picked up the story, creating a wave of bad press for the electronics company that culminated in Belkin protests and an apology from its president.
So-called “ghetto parties” or “gangster parties” have become quite the rage in the last few years, and thus the public ire doesn’t reach quite the pitch it did when Tarleton State made headlines with one of the first of these racism-fests in 2007. Students at this ag school in Stephenville, Texas, mocked black stereotypes by eating fried chicken, drinking malt liquor out of paper bags, and donning chains and doo-rags. One girl even dressed up like Aunt Jemima. Worst of all, they chose Martin Luther King Day for the party. The school scrambled up a diversity forum, at which the student president of the NAACP told the Associated Press he sensed a racial divide, with blacks on one side and whites on the other.
This college student wins the award for most collective PR headaches caused for the most people. Just three days after graduating from the University of Alabama in 2007, Virgil Griffith launched WikiScanner, a program designed to track suspicious edits on the famous crowd-sourced encyclopedia website. In a matter of days, the news of WikiScanner discoveries had reached far beyond Alabama and was traveling the globe. The Vatican had removed references to a political leader’s involvement in a double murder. A CIA employee had defaced the profile entry of Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Exxon Mobil whitewashed an article about oil spills. Slowly, PR reps and fixers began to realize that their days of fudging the truth, at least on Wikipedia, were over.
Two months before Tarleton State’s MLK party, students at Whitman College in Washington held a party in which people dressed up like members of that season’s Survivor cast. The problem: two frat boys decked themselves out in black body paint with orange markings. The photos found their way onto the campus-wide listserv, and by the next day the campus was enflamed with debate about whether the students had been intentionally racist. Major outlets like MSNBC and USA Today had no trouble reaching their own verdict: “Blackface party at Whitman.” True or not, that was the message the public heard. And the administration seemed to agree: officials allowed classes to be canceled for a one-day diversity symposium.
“Hate crime” is pretty much the most poisonous phrase in the PR dictionary. Much to its dismay, Rutgers University became entangled with one in late 2010, when freshman Tyler Clementi committed suicide after his roommate, Dharun Ravi, videotaped him having sex with a man and shared the footage with other students. The death sparked high emotions throughout the country, with even President Obama sharing his feelings about Clementi’s passing. On March 16, 2012, Ravi was convicted on 15 charges, including bias intimidation, a hate crime. The same day, Rutgers’ VP of enrollment was prompted to tell the New York Times whether he thought the guilty verdict would affect admissions. He said no, and it appears he was right. Nevertheless, the very question showed just how badly the school’s reputation had been dinged.
Students at Santa Clara University apparently don’t watch the news, because days after Tarleton State’s 2007 MLK bash in Texas, they decided mocking Hispanics would be a great theme for a party. With students outfitted like gangsters, janitors, and pregnant teens, the “South of the Border” soiree topped even their own “Fresh Off the Boat” party of the previous November on the scale of offensiveness. Special meetings held by Latino groups, diversity forums, a silent march attended by hundreds of students and faculty members, and national media coverage demonstrated just how big a public relations snafu this was for Santa Clara.
When a student editor of UGA’s The Red & Black informed a local newspaper on Aug. 15, 2012 that “the students had lost control of the paper,” the story began to spread like wildfire. The school’s administration had anointed a non-student with final editorial authority and drafted a memo calling for more “good than bad” news coverage and informing students they were no longer allowed to make mistakes (ouch). Everyone concerned with freedom of the press began to closely monitor this story and cheered the student editors as they fought this modern-day censorship by walking out on August 16. The administration raced to head off the bad PR at the pass, calling it all a big misunderstanding and apologizing for the memo, which they said was not meant to get out.