Penn's spin doctors have been working overtime this year, as the University name has been continually emblazoned in negative headlines. The Health System has teetered on the brink of disaster, with several major departures in leadership and continuing financial returns in the red. And to top it off, federal sanctions followed the death of an 18-year-old enrolled in an experimental trial at Penn. And then there was the University endowment dropping while its peers' funds dramatically rose, the fact that administrators have been leaving with an eerie regularity and other events over the past 12 months that have not reflected particularly well on Penn. Casting these ongoing problems in a rosy light has been tough. "People tend to forget the good news of the past and focus on the bad news of today," explained John Chandler, a senior consultant at a search firm for higher education. Chandler noted that since January, Penn has gotten a lot of bad publicity compared to its Ivy counterparts. Pamela Rosser, who owns a Philadelphia public relations firm, said Penn should work extra hard to broadcast its positive accomplishments to cover up the bad news. And indeed, University President Judith Rodin insisted that it had been a very good year for Penn in the papers. "I think it's been a year of very good press," she said. As examples, Rodin pointed to the recent receipt of a Nobel Prize by a Penn chemist and positive publicity surrounding University initiatives in West Philadelphia. But to some, things haven't looked so cheery for Penn. The University found itself in headlines in February after the federal government halted all gene therapy research at Penn, and for months thereafter as the government investigated the University's research practices. Penn's reputation as a research institution was under fire as a result of the death of Jesse Gelsinger -- which his family claimed was Penn's fault. "Because they are so high profile, they are more susceptible to being in the news as the big bad guy," Rosser noted. She said that Penn's complexity and size makes it an easy target for bad publicity. This September, the Health System announced that its financial performance improved by about $168 million since Fiscal Year 1999. "That's been a positive movement forwards, and I think has served us well," UPHS spokeswoman Rebecca Harmon said. But even with this improvement, UPHS still lost $30 million in 2000. And the University as a whole had financial difficulties over the past year. While the endowments of schools like Harvard, Yale and Princeton universities skyrocketed, Penn's posted a loss of over 1 percent in Fiscal Year 1999. "That, of course, can have a long-term impact," Chandler said. "Some places posted spectacular returns, and Penn is rather unusual in underperforming." But Rodin said that while this was a temporary setback in Penn's image, the bad news about the endowment faded quickly. "The endowment was a one-day story," she said. "Yes, it was story I wish hadn't happened, but I don't think that's an issue of Penn's." Still, the financial problems from the Health System and the endowment have impacted student life. It looks like a planned new dormitory in Hamilton Village may not be built any more -- largely because Penn can't afford it. And finances have also led to the unraveling of the Sundance Cinemas deal. Outside of finances, the University has faced significant challenges in keeping its leadership at the University. In February, Health System CEO William Kelley was fired. And his successor, Peter Traber, left the Health System for the private sector after about six months on the job. "A lot of time, inevitably there's a fall guy," Rosser speculated about the departures of Kelley and Traber. This summer, Penn lost several key administrators, as well. "You want to have a stable, visible, likable leader," Rosser said. "It could hurt some relationships." But in the end, despite some less-than-desirable stories in the press, many agreed that Penn retained its strong position in the public eye. "These have been setbacks, but it has such a strong positive image," Rosser said. Added Chandler, "It's easy to forget that Penn has had overall a very good history." Rodin cautioned against reading too much into some challenges Penn has faced over the year. "It's not appropriate or useful to over-interpret the impact of those failures," she said.Comments powered by Disqus
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