UNC Pays Pretty PR Penny to Overcome Academic Fraud Scandal

By Elizabeth S. Mitchell Comment

When it comes to the tremendously competitive world of higher education, reputation is virtually everything; if students are going to incur years of debt in exchange for a diploma, they want that piece of paper to carry as much clout as possible. So when The University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill found itself embroiled in academic scandal, it’s no surprise they called in some big PR guns — with big price tags to match.

For the past two years, UNC has been dealing with an academic-fraud issue involving the department of African and Afro-American studies. Inquiries have revealed 216 courses dating all the way back to 1997 with “proven or potential” problems including no-show professors, “paper” classes that did not require attendance, and 454 potentially unauthorized grade changes.

For help managing the resulting PR crisis — it seems the public generally expects professors to attend their own classes and assign the grades that students actually earn — the university reached out to three big-name industry professionals to the tune of $500,000.

The Fleishman-Hillard firm, Sheehan Asociates, and political consultant Doug Sosnik (earning $367,000, $20,000 and $144,000 respectively) assisted the university’s administration and trustees in dealing with negative media attention. Some specific projects included changes to op-eds and putting UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Holden Thorp through a four-hour session in preparation for answering reporters’ questions.

They say you can’t put a price on reputation, but in this case the going rate of half a mil is likely worth it — nothing makes a PR crisis worse than poorly delivered statements and disorganized damage control, and employing a good PR team is a smart way to avoid such gaffes. The hefty bill will reportedly be paid by UNC’s privately funded foundation.