Sex abuse scandal at PSU unlikely to affect admissions
Share with others:
The battering of Penn State University's reputation amid a child sex abuse scandal is unlikely to cause a significant drop in the number of students seeking admission to the state's flagship university, higher education experts say.
History has shown that well-respected universities that act swiftly and decisively to deal with crises of confidence caused by scandals or tragedies actually find their reputations eventually enhanced rather than forever tarnished, noted Michael Schoenfeld, Duke University vice president for public affairs.
"Every major university has what some may describe as defining scandals. Everyone has work to do to move beyond it, but major American universities are very strong and resilient institutions with a great deal of respect and a lot in the bank in terms of reputation," he said.
"They can bend, but it does take a lot to break one."
Take Duke, for example, which faced an avalanche of negative press after three players on the men's lacrosse team were charged with rape in March 2006. The charges were dropped in April 2007.
Mr. Schoenfeld said Duke experienced a slight drop in early decision applicants in the fall following the charges but no decrease in the number of regular decision applicants. In the spring of 2007, when high school students were deciding where to attend, a higher percentage chose Duke than had done so in preceding years.
And since then, there has been a double-digit increase in applicants.
"In Duke's case, because of the level of interest in the university, people separated a particular incident from the experience and quality of the education a student gets here," Mr. Schoenfeld said.
"World-renowned institutions have had murders on campus, major financial scandals, medical scandals but they tend to be, more often than not, defined by the overall quality of the institution."
For the current year, more than 41,000 freshmen applied to Penn State's main campus in University Park, 22,700 were admitted and 7,200 enrolled. Traditionally, more high school students ask that their SAT scores be sent to Penn State than to any other university.
Its first deadline for rolling admissions next fall arrives on Nov. 30, less than a month after the scandal erupted.
"Penn State is a strong institution with a great reputation and a loyal fan base," said Joyce E. Smith, chief executive officer of National Association for College Admission Counseling in Arlington, Va. "Once you get over the shock of something like this you look at how the campus deals with it. I think they will be fine in terms of admissions."
That's because, she said, the board of trustees acted swiftly and decisively in the current crisis and a majority of Penn State students showed character by expressing sympathy for eight victims who authorities say were sexually assaulted as children by former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky over 15 years.
Days after stating their commitment to "restoring public trust," the trustees announced the departure of President Graham Spanier and the firing of legendary football coach Joe Paterno. The men had faced criticism for not telling law enforcement in 2002 of allegations that Mr. Sandusky sexually assaulted a boy in a locker room shower of the Lasch football building on campus.
Moreover, she said, after some students rioted in protest of Mr. Paterno's firing, "what turned the tide for me was the focus the [majority of Penn State] students put on the kids being victims. When that flipped, I thought, 'They get it. It's not all about football.' "
In the final analysis, she said, "the questions parents have [is], 'Is this a safe place for students?' [The crimes charged] are not a part of the regular Penn State community. There's some distance there, it's not part of the core fabric of the campus. These were not students being attacked in their dorms or a shooting in a lecture hall."
And a strong university can overcome even something as horrific as that. Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., not only survived but thrived after the worst mass shooting in American history on April 16, 2007, when 32 students and faculty were killed by gunman Seung-Hui Cho, who committed suicide.
In the fall semester following the massacre, the college saw a larger than average number of students accept admission.
"It showed we continued to be a university in strong demand. It's fair to say it's continued," said Larry Hincker, Virginia Tech associate vice president for university relations.
"One of the things that occurred in the days and ultimately the weeks after April 16 was that, really, the students became almost surrogate spokespersons for the university," he said. "People began to see what a great community we have."
While Penn State faces "tough days" ahead, he is confident it will overcome them because of its standing among the nation's schools of higher education.
"Penn State is a great university with a reputation for great leadership. It is highly respected around the country for its outreach, the quality of its educational programs, its faculty.
"That's why I say with confidence they will address this appropriately because, in my opinion, it is a very, very good university. That's what parents and students are going to be looking at."
First Published November 17, 2011 12:00 am