How university chief's quick actions stemmed image crisis

13 March 2015 -


Academic president David Boren showed masterful crisis management instincts over damaging frat video, writes our media training expert

Will Edwards

This week, in the face of a massive reputational crisis, one organisation did what many others before it have failed to do: acted quickly and decisively.

On Sunday, an online video emerged showing several members of University of Oklahoma frat Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) chanting a racial slur in connection with lynching – while suggesting that black students would never be admitted to their ranks.

Alexis Hall, communications director of black student group OU Unheard, said he was notified of the video’s existence by an anonymous source. Hall went on to say: “We immediately needed to share that with the OU student body … For students to say they’re going to lynch an entire group of people – it’s disgusting.”

University president David Boren – a former US senator – sprang into action, attending a pre-dawn rally organised by students and describing the video as “disgraceful” and “reprehensible”. At a subsequent news conference, he added: “This is not who we are … I’d be glad if [the perpetrators] left. I might even pay the bus fare for them.”

Boren supported his recorded words with a written statement, in which he said: “Effective immediately, all ties and affiliations between this University and the local SAE chapter are hereby severed. I direct that the house be closed and that members will remove their personal belongings from the house by midnight tomorrow.”

In short order, the University began to take action against specific students – and by Tuesday, two of those involved had been expelled. Boren was keen to show that the investigation into exactly who took part was ongoing and said; “Once their identities have been confirmed, they will be subject to appropriate disciplinary action.”

After that, the nationwide SAE fraternity from which the Oklahoma group drew its name, then even some of the compromised students themselves, issued statements apologising for the incident. But their problems continued as another video emerged showing the fraternity’s “house mom” repeating a racial slur as music played along in the background.

With the videos spreading so quickly online, the university’s crisis could have escalated into ever-more damaging territory. But president Boren showed real concern: he acted fast to speak out and condemn those involved, clearly stated that action would be taken against them and expressed solidarity through the rally with students who were opposed to the frat’s bout of racism.

All told, the university handled the situation in the best way it could. While there is sure to be lasting damage, it was almost certainly limited by swift and decisive crisis management.

Will Edwards is managing director of media training consultancy Bluewood Training.

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