We’re not drinking that kool-aid here.
Tell the truth, how many of you would list Statistics as one of your favorite college courses? I thought so.
Well, I was an English Major that loved Statistics That puts me in a very small subset of human beings on this planet. It did help me, though, to earn a pretty good living as a marketing consultant to clients like the Pennsylvania Lottery, Wendy’s, the University of Pennsylvania, Comcast, the Philadelphia 76ers, and a number of media companies and political candidates.
I mention this because I have just reviewed the Penn State Alumni Survey and I am about to give some unsolicited pro bono advice to those responsible for managing my Alma Mater: I know your well-paid consultants will be going over these numbers with you and their PowerPoint presentations will try to reassure you that the Titanic is not really sinking under your watch; it’s just taking on a little water.
Don’t drink that kool-aid.
This devastating report is just the tip of an iceberg that is ripping a gaping hole in the University’s superstructure. Penn State has grown from a provincial agriculture college into one of the country’s premier research and educational institutions in large part because of its remarkably supportive alumni base. That support goes far beyond donations. And it is eroding by the day.
Half a million of us have been happily drinking the Blue&White kool-aid and sharing it daily with our family, friends and coworkers. That’s why Penn State continues to get so many applications and continues to rank so highly among recruiters. It’s the kind of person-to-person, word-of-mouth public relations that can’t be bought at any price. It’s what Malcolm Gladwell calls a tipping point.
In 2006, 70% of alumni had a Very Positive attitude towards Penn State. That is a remarkable number. Seven out of ten weren’t just satisfied, they were enthusiastic kool-aid drinkers In 2009, that number went up to 73%. Project that over 557,000 alumni and you have 407,000 active ambassadors selling Penn State.
This year, that number fell precipitously to 47%. More than 1/3 of all those Very Positive alumni now have doubts. We are in very real danger of losing 150,000 of our most ardent and credible ambassadors. No organization can tolerate that kind of nosedive for long.
And it is not Jerry Sandusky’s fault.
Penn Staters understand that we have our share of bad actors. We also understand that the media always looks for sensational headlines and seldom waits for evidence or due process. But …
We expected better from our own Board of Trustees. They knew Joe Paterno. Some of them had been coached by him. All of them basked in the Success with Honor glow that he kindled. Joe wasn’t just the coach of our football team, he was the embodiment of our pride. That’s why 9 out of 10 alumni disagree with the Board’s actions. That’s why 48% of us feel more negatively towards our University than we did before November 9th. That’s why 29% are less likely to make a donation. That’s why 23% are less likely to promote Penn State to a friend or family member. That’s why 87% feel it is time to publicly honor the Coach for his 61 years of service.
And that’s why only 13% of us trust the Board of Trustees. And only 23% trust the current administration. Even after all the millions of dollars spent, the “listening” tours, the new websites, the press releases. 13% and 23%. That’s the level of trust. And it is not going to get better until the ducking and weaving stops.
The consultants have been giving textbook advice but this is not a textbook situation. They underestimate the intelligence, the passion and the anger of the Penn State community. They have no template that approximates the impact Coach Paterno had over 61 years on campus.
It’s been reported that when Mimi Barash a non-voting Emeritus Trustee warned the Board that it was a mistake to fire a man as widely respected and revered as Coach Paterno without even giving him a chance to speak, vice-chair John Surma snapped back, “we’re not drinking that kool-aid here!” Surma expected to be the next chairman of the Board. Instead he will be remembered as the man who fired a Legend with a curt telephone call. And helped to create the worst crises in Penn State history.
So here’s the question, Penn Staters. Short of a mass resignation which is highly unlikely to happen, what should the Trustees do at their July meeting? Should they wait for the Freeh Report to confirm that Joe wasn’t hiding a closet of dirty little secrets or should they apologize now for their rush to judgment, admit they made a mistake in not accepting his resignation, and ask forgiveness for the damage they’ve done?
Let me know what you think. And have another sip of that Blue&White kool-aid with me!