Dear Lori Doyle, Congratulations on your new position. Your job is one of the most important at the University, particularly given its current corporate climate. But don't expect to have much time to enjoy it. As Penn's new director of communications, you've got one of the most challenging jobs at the University -- "communicating the good news and massaging the bad," as your new boss, Judith Rodin, once put it. And one never knows when the next emergency is going to spring up. It's hard because you have to please trustees and administrators by getting this institution's name out in the press as much as possible -- for the reasons they want it to be there. Meanwhile, you have to find a way to gloss over any major screw-ups those same people make. And it's made even more difficult by the endless stream of flacks, lackeys and spin doctors that every administrator employs, in nearly every corner of dear old Penn. The Rodin administration has become the model of corporatized higher education. Nothing is more important than media spin, than doing everything possible to cover up the bad news and accentuate what it considers the good. Sometimes, it seems like the administration is just as thrilled to have a story appear in The New York Times as it is to win a Nobel Prize or Rhodes scholarship. That emphasis makes your job as coordinator of the University's overall media relations strategy especially important. But there's more to it than simply finding a way to spin the Sundance debacle or the latest lawsuit (which I know you will tell all who will listen is "baseless and without merit" -- no matter how much "merit" it actually has). Your job must also be to ensure that the students, faculty and staff of the University of Pennsylvania know all they need to know about the institution they attend or work for. Communication is more than just communicating with the national press -- it's communicating with the people this University serves; you must be an advocate of that philosophy. You must understand and believe that the members of the Penn community have a right to know about the decisions being made in their name, and you must seek to persuade those you work with and for of the same. Judging from past history, it won't be easy. But it remains important for a larger reason. The constant spin control has made students here cynical of all the school's actions. And that's a shame, because having gotten to know many officials all across this school, I do believe that the large majority of them are good people who want to give students the best educational experience possible. But at best, dishonesty breeds mistrust, and at worst outright contempt. And it's the latter that many students and staff feel these days for Penn's top officials. You can do much to change that, and I hope that you will. This school deserves nothing less than an administration whose actions are respected not just by higher education experts, but also by the people those actions affects. None of this is to say there is no value to spin -- it would be hopelessly naive, and maybe even dangerous, to expect it to disappear. As a journalist, of course, the constant spin control used to make my job at The Daily Pennsylvanian more difficult and less fun. But as a student -- in effect, a shareholder of this institution -- I know the value of good PR, and I know that higher education can no longer afford to pretend not to be a part of big business. For better or for worse, that's now exactly what colleges and universities are. But Penn is not General Motors or Phillip Morris, and its spin tactics should not and cannot be the same. I hope that by accepting this job, by returning from your brief hiatus to the Penn family, you understand that. And I hope that you can start to change a culture that has led to such mistrust from the people the administration wants to serve. Best of luck -- you'll certainly need it.Comments powered by Disqus
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