You may not know who he is or what he does. But chances are you've read something said by Kenneth J. Wildes, Jr., Penn's soon-to-be-departed Director of University Communications, aka Penn's media flack-in-chief.
Since arriving at Penn in 1996, the towering, gray-haired Wildes has been quoted in the pages of this newspaper more than any other Penn official, save Judith Rodin. He's been expected to talk to the press on anything and everything -- alcohol-related hospitalizations to sweatshops, gene therapy blunders to Fulbright scholarships.
For an administration that believes in corporate-style higher education, nothing is more important than media spin -- doing everything possible to cover up the bad and accentuate the good. And so Wildes' job as coordinator of the University's media relations strategy has been especially important to make those ends meet.
Since the media-savvy Rodin became president in 1994, public relations and spin control have become more and more central to this university. It's hard to imagine some of the embarrassments that plagued the final years of Sheldon Hackney's tenure as president -- like the infamous "water buffalo" incident, which made Penn top the front page news and become a nationwide laughingstock -- happening these days.
And I'll admit it: yeah, that's usually a pretty good thing. It makes my job as a college journalist a little less fun, but it protects the reputation of the school to which we fork over tens of thousands of dollars and makes our degrees all the more valuable.
But it also means that top Penn officials rarely speak candidly to the media or to the student body. And it means they can hardly ever admit their mistakes in the public eye.
In announcing Wildes' departure, Rodin thanked him for "communicating the good news and managing the bad." Not admitting the bad, but managing it, massaging it, maybe even turning it into something that sounds good. Hey, when life throws you a lemon, make lemonade, right? That certainly has seemed to be the philosophy of most of those at Penn charged with talking to the press -- and there are dozens of them -- and the administrators for whom they work.
That philosophy has meant, for example, that we're told that dean searches take 15 months because that's how long it takes to identify the best candidate in the country -- even when the final choice is clearly not that candidate.
It's meant that we're told James Wilson is happy with the changes made last month to his Institute for Human Gene Therapy -- even though it means his life's work has essentially been taken away from him.
And it means that we're told it's okay when one of the few political science professors we have left, and one of the only Latino professors at Penn, announces plans to leave for Yale -- we didn't want him anyway.
This makes us all cynical about the motives of Penn's top officials and makes it harder to believe that they are acting in the interests of the student body -- even though they almost always are.
But Wildes has distinguished himself, for the most part, by standing apart from those scores of others, because of his ability and his desire to engage the press and not constantly try to sell them the party line.
Sure, he's done his share of spinning and even occasionally has been purposefully misleading. Long after it became patently obvious that William Kelley was about to lose his job, Wildes didn't stray from the line that the embattled Health System chief would be around for the long haul. And no matter how valid a lawsuit against Penn might seem, he could always be relied upon to promise that the suit was "totally without merit."
But he also understood that the University community has a right to know about the decisions being made in their name. He has been one of the very few to accept that when those decisions are wrong and when the administration's explanations for them are unsatisfactory, the press has a right, an obligation, to call it like it is.
An example? Two years ago, the Division of Public Safety stopped talking to the DP because it was unhappy with the paper's coverage of a shocking on-campus assault and the police department's bungled efforts to stop football fans from tearing down one of the Franklin Field goalposts. Wildes engineered a compromise that enabled the Penn community to once again be kept informed about the issue -- crime and security -- that is arguably the most important to their lives in West Philadelphia.
That, more than anything else, should be the job of a director of university communications: making sure that students, faculty and community members know all they need to know about the institution they attend or work for. It's essential for Wildes' successor -- and the team charged with finding that person -- to recognize that.Comments powered by Disqus
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