By Michelle Coull

Online reputation is hugely important to the success of any university or college.

A poor reputation can cause:

  • a decrease in academic ranking
  • a lack of financial sponsorship
  • a failure to attract staff and students

And while it was once fairly easy to safeguard the image of a respected university, the growth of social media use exposes institutions to reputational risk and could undermine their standing in the academic community.

So it’s no surprise when a university takes action against students bringing its name into disrepute.

This was revealed to be the case at Harvard College when 10 incoming freshmen had their admissions revoked over comments made on a Facebook group which were either racist or downright offensive.

The students-to-be were part of Harvard’s Class of 2021 Facebook group, but decided last December to break away from the mainstream and form their own sub-group entitled “Harvard memes for horny bourgeois teens”.

Around 100 members joined this group, but even that wasn’t risqué enough, and a few started up another spin-off group to share more “R-rated” memes.

In this group, jokes and memes were shared which mocked sexual assault, the Holocaust and the deaths of youngsters, as well as vilifying certain religious and ethnic groups.

School administrators who were made aware of this behaviour contacted those involved and asked them to disclose everything they had shared as part of the group, as well as requesting them to submit a statement within 24 hours explaining these contributions and online actions to the Admissions Committee.

Implicated students were informed their admissions status was under review and they were instructed to stay away from Visitas, Harvard’s annual weekend of programming for prospective freshmen.

Roughly a week later, at least 10 members of the group chat received letters informing them that their offers of admission had been withdrawn.

The decision, which was reported this week, is not surprising.

While some will cite freedom of speech, this does not excuse social media users from responsibility - particularly when they are seen to be 'representing' a brand.

There are any number of ways in which a university can find itself suddenly having to defend its reputation, both from those outside and inside the institution.

Whether it's a former staff member with a grudge, venting online, or an offensive culture among the student population, a college needs to know how to act fast to manage any risk to the university's name and standing in the education sector.

A crisis communications strategy is the best way to anticipate the pitfalls, and to know how to mitigate the impact.

And a clear set of policies should be distributed to key stakeholders, informing them of the conduct expected of anyone associated with the brand.

Meaning students can enjoy a crazy, carefree life... but not at the expense of the university's name.


For help with online brand protection, contact us now on 0800 612 9890