Emory University’s Smart Move (After A Stupid Mistake)

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Emory University’s Smart Move After A Stupid Mistake


Why this is a lesson worth learning, even if you aren’t in higher ed

Commentary by Grant Rampy, Firestorm Expert Council Member

Mr. Rampy is director of public relations at Abilene Christian University. He was White House Correspondent for Tribune Broadcasting in Washington, D.C., from 1999 to 2009.

Emory Fesses Up

Typically, universities love to share good news – regarding faculty scholarship, impressive student accomplishment, or for delivering a break-through in medical research; the better the news, the more reason to brag.

The president of Atlanta’s Emory University finds himself suddenly, and apparently of his own volition, making news of an altogether different variety – the bad kind.

On August 17, 2012, Emory’s president Jim Wagner announced that his school had misreported student data for more than a decade, data used by news organizations to calculate rankings. SAT and ACT scores were overstated. Student ‘admit’ numbers were inflated. Rankings based on that data are, as a result, skewed.

Big deal, you say? So what if a few magazines took the bogus figures, ran their calculations, and ranked Emory a few notches higher than the school deserved.

Well, it is indeed a big deal because — as anyone who works in higher education will tell you — rankings matter. How hard is your school? How choosey? How expensive are you compared to your peers?

You think the Olympics, Oscars and Grammys have a lot of categories? For the sheer number of factors on which a person, place or thing can be judged, higher ed beats all.

US News, Forbes, the Princeton Review and Newsweek do big business giving schools the business when it comes to rankings. Make a big jump or fall flat on your face and you’re going to make headlines. Those headlines affect the number of students you’ll attract, the dollars you’ll raise, and the hires you’ll make in coming years.

In short: among colleges and universities, rankings are everything and matter to just about everyone. Wagner’s announcement must thus be considered in light of the stakes. His admission was bold, high risk and, without doubt, costly.

But it was also the absolute right move to make.


Wagner broke the news. Make no mistake: Word of Emory’s blunder was going to get out. In being the one to let the cat out of the bag, was able to tell the story his way.


Wagner displayed candor, clarity and concision. “Here’s the news; here’s what we did; and here’s what we’re doing about it.” There will likely be no drip, drip, drip of revelations and spin to follow. Wagner lanced the boil.


Wagner set the terms for recovery. Rather than allowing an ill-informed public or alumni base to demand action based on leaked news reports, Wagner laid out Emory’s plan for getting to the bottom of the blunder. He made clear that staffers no longer with the organization allegedly broke the rules, not faculty or staff who are still in the organization. Also, Wagner said Emory has launched an internal investigation with help from an outside law firm. A series of new internal controls for data reporting is already in place.

It may be early to lay on the atta’ boys too heavily. Wagner may, after all, have been pressured to come clean by outside journalists or whistle-blowers within. The tone of his announcement, however, suggests a coming-clean that is sure to speed recovery.

Once again, we have a clear case of an organization faced with a “pay now or pay later” decision: speak now and control the message, or wait to see what happens with damage control efforts to follow.

All too rare is the leader who steps up and speaks quickly, thereby robbing the media buzz-saw of its power to completely chew through the organization’s reputation. Yes, Emory’s good name has been tarnished, but those with a stake in the university’s future can take heart that a corner has been turned and an honest leader is at the helm.

Let the healing begin.


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