In today’s brand-conscious society, public relations debacles that befall soda companies and fast food restaurants do not necessarily enhance the images of their competitors. Likewise, marketing experts said the unyielding firestorm at Harvard, the Coca-Cola of higher education, presents Yale, the Pepsi, with little to gain.
“If it’s Coke and Pepsi, I’m not sure if a Coke mistake will benefit Pepsi,” said Stephen Quigley, a communications professor at Boston University. “I don’t know that damage to one institution’s reputation is likely necessarily going to benefit the other.”
Harvard President Lawrence Summers’ controversial remarks on women scientists have divided the university’s faculty and generated major press coverage, but public relations experts said Summers’ comments will hardly tarnish the image of his centuries-old university. Experts said Yale has little to gain from the maelstrom at Harvard and said Yale officials are best advised to remain quiet on the matter, so as not to damage its reputation by appearing too opportunistic.
At a Harvard faculty meeting Tuesday afternoon, some 500 professors were divided over Summers’ leadership, with some faculty members suggesting he should resign to preserve Harvard’s reputation, the Harvard Crimson reported. At the meeting, physics professor Daniel Fisher became the first faculty member to publicly call for Summers’ resignation.
“For the good of Harvard, Lawrence Summers must resign, or the Corporation, for the good of Harvard, must fire him,” Fisher said. “We cannot wait for irreparable harm to come to Harvard.”
Several public relations and marketing professionals from universities and media consulting firms said that Summers’ comments will cause little longterm damage to Harvard’s standing because they represent Summers and not the entire university.
The controversy provides Harvard’s peer institutions with a chance to showcase their own efforts to increase female representation in the faculty, said Jeff Siegel, a New York public relations consultant. But he said that Yale and other universities could gain unsavory reputations if they are perceived as taking advantage of Harvard’s problems.
Yale President Richard Levin has declined to speak specifically on Summers’ comments, but has said the University remains committed to expanding the role of women in the sciences.
Siegel said Levin’s strategy is a good public relations move for the University.
“I think Levin is being prudent, although I’m sure you could find people with different opinions,” Siegel said. “Overreaching is probably arguably the only thing that could really get someone into very hot water.”
By remaining silent, Yale can take advantage of the media’s focus on Harvard, said Dawn Iacobucci, a marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Comparing Harvard and Yale to McDonald’s and Burger King, Iacobucci said the industry leaders should remain silent when the other endures negative press coverage, although smaller competitors such as Taco Bell and Wendy’s might feel freer to speak out.
“I think that Yale could come out smelling like roses by being courteous and professional and silent,” Iacobucci said. “I think that they know it could have been them as targets just as easily.”
While Levin has stayed mum about Harvard, despite student protest, the presidents of Princeton, Stanford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology criticized Summers’ remarks in a joint letter earlier this month.
John Hutchinson, another University of Pennsylvania marketing professor, said he thinks the Summers controversy might tarnish Harvard’s long-term reputation among female faculty and alumnae more so than it will among the general population.
Summers comments will probably not discourage prospective students from applying to Harvard, but may have a more damaging effect on prospective faculty, Northwestern University communications professor Lyn Van Swol said.
“I don’t think [students] are as upset as the faculty,” Van Swol said. “Faculty are more concerned about political correctness, and students are more concerned about getting their degrees.”
At Deerfield Academy, a private preparatory school in Massachusetts that frequently sends students off to Ivy League universities, Summers’ comments have not influenced students who are applying to college, Deerfield secretary Lee Wicks said.
“I think when you look at an institution such as Harvard or Yale with a long history, no person would let one comment influence them,” Wicks said.
Esteemed educational institutions are no strangers to contentious debate, said Joseph Rose, a communications professor at Emerson College. Recalling former Yale President A. Bartlett Giamatti’s reputation for controversial public remarks, Rose said polemical discussions are healthy for universities. He said Summers’ gaffes alone cannot take down Harvard.
“Debates like this at the highest of the highest institutions only lead to progress, in my opinion,” Rose said.