OSU vs. Urban Meyer vs. The Law
Firestorm encourages thought leadership across a variety of industries. We are pleased to share insights from guest author, Dr. Kathie Fleck, APR. Dr. Fleck is the Assistant Professor in Communication and Media Studies at Ohio Northern University. With a career spanning various sectors, she provides a unique perspective backed by experience in business, politics, government, non-profit, and higher education. Read Dr. Fleck’s previous articles:
- Is your Oxytocin showing? How trust matters in a crisis
- Netflix and the N-Word
- The N-Word Redux – how message maps help manage high profile disasters
Ohio State University’s football program has been valued at $1.5 billion – the highest in the nation. At the top of the Buckeye Nation franchise is head coach Urban Meyer, whose 73–8 record has earned respect and admiration from OSU and college football fans nationwide. Recently, however, the coach’s fate is uncertain.
OSU placed Coach Meyer on paid administrative leave, pending an investigation about what he may have known of alleged domestic abuse by an assistant coach who was fired a few weeks ago. This situation is fraught with potential pitfalls for the university, and time is not in their favor.
Crises involving personnel decisions can be very complicated. Organizations must handle both its investigation and eventual communication of any decision carefully; and OSU has not publicly released a statement amid the active investigation.
Each industry is governed by rules, laws and professional ethics – all of which must be both known and considered when making decisions in these situations. Here are a few issues OSU must consider before publicly speaking that may also apply to a range of organizations.
An employment contract
Urban Meyer recently negotiated a new contract set to expire in 2023, with compensation slated at more than $38 million over the life of the agreement. The contract allows the university to release Meyer “for cause” including violations of the law, ethics, fraud, dishonesty or “failure to report” violations of university rules known to be committed by himself or any of his assistant coaches. The investigation will likely hinge on the definition of “known” as that is crux of this crisis. Not an easy test to satisfy – an even harder one to explain.
Transparency in both process and communication is important in any crisis. Its function is to build trust and credibility with a wide variety of audiences. But in personnel matters, being fully transparent runs up against legal and ethical barriers that restrict what can be disclosed. One of these restrictions includes protection for an employee against defamation. In this supercharged situation, OSU will have to walk a fine line with any statement it makes.
Universities must adhere to the tenents of Title IX, a federal civil rights law passed as part of the Education Amendments of 1972. Any faculty, staff or administrative employee is required under this law to report any information they receive about incidents involving sexual assault/ harassment, intimate partner violence, or stalking. This too, will likely be taken into consideration and will need to be fully explained.
Regardless of the fate of a single coach, the decision OSU decides upon will have reverberations throughout the entire system including approximately 46,000 employees, 550,000 alumni, 240,000 donors and 66,000 current students. What happens to one may set a precedent, break a precedent or complicate the handling of future situations. Successful resolution will require clear and thorough communication in order to satisfy the myriad of audiences significant to Ohio State and gain acceptance of whatever decision is made.