Timing is everything in big announcements

As fall quarter draws to a close, so does the search to replace University President Nils Hasselmo. Candidate interviews for the position will end Dec. 13 and the regents will announce the name of the University’s next leader shortly before Christmas. But with finals ending Dec. 14 and classes not resuming until Jan. 6, the campus will be all but deserted when the big news comes. Unfortunately, this seems to be part of a pattern in announcing major decisions at the University.
A common public relations ploy is to announce bad news at 4 p.m. on a Friday afternoon, when it’s least likely to be picked up or dealt with in a substantive manner. The University has historically employed a similar strategy. Over the past few years, several decisions with direct repercussions for students and faculty have occurred during breaks in the academic year. The controversial Morris plan to revise the tenure code was unveiled Sept. 5, during the off-period between the second summer session and the start of the fall quarter. On June 1, 1995, just before finals, Hasselmo proposed a two-year budget plan that raised tuition for all students at a rate of 4 to 18.9 percent depending on their program of study. And the U2000 plan to restructure the University, perhaps the most far-reaching decision of the decade, was made public in early September 1993.
The decision to release bad news late in the afternoon may temporarily subdue negative reaction, but when the public finally becomes aware of the issue, they feel left out of the process and apathetic. The decision to make major announcements when campus is deserted or preoccupied with finals has similar consequences, which the administration needs to consider.
Certainly the University is not a democracy. Nor should it be. With classes in session only 40 weeks out of the year and one of the largest student bodies in the nation, administrative decisions will obviously not always overlap with academic quarters. But announcing the University’s pivotal decisions to an empty campus also makes a statement. The current pattern says the University’s decision-making bodies are more concerned with spin control than with demonstrating commitment to the University community.
This fall, in particular, tensions at the University are running extraordinarily high. When a critical decision is announced during off-periods, an already tense atmosphere is further agitated. Campus issues, particularly messy ones, need to be dealt with in an open and straightforward manner. When a final decision is made, it should be done forthrightly, and students and faculty should feel that they have been adequately informed on the issues that affect them.
By spin doctoring major decisions, the University may be attempting to follow the lead of corporate America. But the relationships between administration, faculty, students and staff in higher education are fundamentally different from the corporate labor/management dynamic. If insensitivity in scheduling important announcements continues, members of the University community will fall prey to the alienation and tension that any institution of higher learning should avoid.