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Failure to Communicate

Nathan Santistevan

"People expect you to take corrective action when there's a problem, and they don't understand why you don't do it on a pretty prompt basis," says Hank Brown, one-term U.S. senator, former president of the University of Northern Colorado, and now interim president of the University of Colorado. "My instinct is that's the single best thing you can do."

On August 1, the day he took the wheel at CU, Brown immediately started cleaning up the mess that is the university's communications managers. This step symbolically signaled the start of a new era -- one in which controversies will be taken head-on, not dodged, rationalized, gussied up or attributed to someone else, as has been all too common in the shadow of the Flatirons.

How has CU erred in the past? Let us count the ways. Since a complete catalogue of CU's stumbles would fill a library, we've skimmed off the cream of the crap -- a chronological top-ten list of the university's most memorable PR gaffes since December 2001, when football players and recruits arrived at a party that's still producing headlines. The results have the makings of a fascinating business course: Crisis Mismanagement 101.

1. December 2002: Losing the Name Game

On December 9, 2002, a year after a get-together at her apartment went sour and about eight months after Boulder prosecutors decided not to level rape charges in relation to the bash, CU student Lisa Simpson filed a lawsuit against the university in state court. Among other things, she claimed that the school allowed or overlooked the use of alcohol and sex in athletic recruiting, creating an environment that led to her rape by drunken 'ballers.

Simpson wanted to proceed anonymously, and although the Boulder Daily Camera printed her name on December 11 (the paper has a rule about identifying individuals involved in civil suits), most of the media granted her wish.

Not CU, though. While administrators did their damnedest to portray the university as sensitive to the plights of women, their efforts were shown to be nothing more than lip service when CU's attorneys forced Simpson's case into federal court and petitioned to put her name front and center. Simpson finally went public officially in May 2003.

Similar bullying tactics were employed against two other alleged rape victims: a woman who sued CU as Jane Doe in December 2003, and Monique Gillaspie, whose lawsuit against the university entered the books in January 2004 (the same month that Simpson's and Doe's suits were consolidated). When Gillaspie dropped her complaint last December, she told the Daily Camera that she'd been beaten down by what she described as "guerrilla warfare" on the school's part. "CU condoned a litigation strategy of abusive attacks by CU lawyers on my character and credibility and private life," she e-mailed the paper.

Could CU have pursued a vigorous defense without appearing to smear or intimidate these women? Certainly -- and by showing its vicious side, the school seemed to confirm that it was more interested in protecting football players than the females on campus.

2. February 2004: Late Night With Betsy Hoffman

By early 2004, local media outlets were churning out story after negative story about CU's football program -- but the real bombshell landed on February 17, 2004, and it exploded nationally in Sports Illustrated. In an interview with columnist Rick Reilly, a CU grad who makes his home in Denver, former Buffaloes placekicker Katie Hnida said she'd been raped by a player in 2000 and had suffered no shortage of verbal abuse from other teammates. Later that day, head coach Gary Barnett defended his program against such allegations, only to insert a cleated shoe into his yap when describing Hnida's on-field skills: "Katie was a girl, and not only was she a girl, she was terrible. Okay? There is no other way to say it."

On February 18, conditions deteriorated further with the release of a 2001 police report in which a woman who worked for the athletic department said Barnett had promised to give "100 percent" of his backing to a player she'd accused of rape if she pressed charges against him.

When word got out that CU president Elizabeth "Betsy" Hoffman would be holding a news conference at ten o'clock that evening, many assumed she would hand Barnett his head. Although doing so would be the sort of swift, decisive act for which she'd never been known, why else would she gather the press just as the local TV stations kicked off their final newscasts?

But Hoffman, looking goggle-eyed and uncomfortable as she sat beside Chancellor Richard Byyny in her office, merely suspended Barnett -- and she emphasized that the police report had not been a factor in her decision. Rather, the coach was being punished for saying something mean about Hnida, and for not being sufficiently apologetic about it afterward.

Watching this debacle, viewers could be excused for thinking that Hoffman was a girl, and not only was she a girl, she was terrible.

3. June 2004: Liquor Is Quicker

Throughout the spring, CU's coverage adamantly refused to improve. Revelations of boozing by athletes, and athletic supporters, didn't help, and neither did CU athletic director Richard "Dick" Tharp's ownership stake in Liquor Mart, one of the largest alcohol retailers in Boulder -- and a major supplier for CU, as the Rocky Mountain News revealed.

So how did Tharp address this issue? He resigned from Liquor Mart's board of directors -- an empty gesture, since he retained his ownership interest. Which came in handy when he finally resigned his CU position several months later, after multiple reports skewered him for his ineffective, lackadaisical supervision of the athletic department. When you're drowning your sorrows, it's nice to know that some of the profits never leave the glass.

4. June 2004: 'C' Is for Chaucer

In a deposition for Lisa Simpson's lawsuit, CU president Hoffman was queried about the profanity "cunt" -- one of many slurs that placekicker Hnida said fellow Buffaloes had hurled her way. Hoffman responded that although the term qualified as a "swear word," its meaning varied due to context. "Yes, I've actually heard it used as a term of endearment," she declared.

Whether this comment divulges more about Hoffman's sex life than the vast majority of us would like to know remains a mystery. So, too, does CU's inexplicable decision to defend her assertion rather than simply apologize for it. Spokeswoman Michelle Ames found herself in the untenable position of having to tell journalists that Hoffman, a medieval scholar, had been thinking of "The Miller's Tale," a section of The Canterbury Tales, in which author Geoffrey Chaucer wrote, "He made a grab and caught her by the queint" -- the Olde English spelling of what mainstream papers reporting on the bizarre twist consistently called "the C-word." The necessity of defending her nonsensical statement soon took its toll on Hoffman; she broke down crying while meeting with the editorial board of the Durango Herald in the days after the deposition surfaced in mid-June.

At an appearance before the Denver Forum two weeks ago, after announcing that she'll teach at CU-Denver's Graduate School of Public Affairs this fall, Hoffman blamed the gaffe on her participation in "a second day of a deposition on a Saturday morning...where the sole purpose was to get me to say something dumb."

If that was the aim, Hoffman came through for them like another C-word: a champ.

5. December 2004: Failing Upward

As the person charged with overseeing CU's athletic department, Chancellor Byyny had plenty to fear from the grand jury convened by then-attorney general Ken Salazar and charged with examining the university's approach to recruiting. The jury, which wrapped up its work in August 2004, offered only one indictment, fingering Nathan Maxcey, formerly a recruiting assistant with the football team, for soliciting a prostitute on a university cell phone. (Maxcey pleaded guilty in July and was sentenced to a year's probation and 48 hours of community service.) But as the grand jury report's conclusions dribbled out during ensuing months, it became clear that neither Byyny nor athletic director Tharp had received a rousing salute for their leadership qualities. When Tharp resigned on November 22, many people thought that Byyny would soon exit in much the same manner.

Think again. On December 14, CU disclosed that, instead of being punished for his central role in the university's waking nightmare, Byyny had been promoted. Specifically, he was named to head the University of Colorado Hospital's health-policy center, a gig whose $250,000 annual salary was $25,000 higher than the sum he received as chancellor. Evading accountability can be lucrative -- but if Byyny handles his new responsibilities the way he managed the football scandal, he'll be up for malpractice in no time.

6. February 2005: Separation of Churchill and State

With the fallout from the Simpson-Doe lawsuit continuing to generate bad mojo for CU, the last thing the university needed was another scandal -- but that's exactly what it got. In January, various students and instructors at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, began protesting an impending appearance by CU professor Ward Churchill, citing "Some People Push Back: On the Justice of Roosting Chickens," an essay the longtime prof had written immediately after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. The piece found Churchill likening 9/11 victims to "Little Eichmanns" -- a reference to Adolf Eichmann, one of the primary instigators of Nazi Germany's so-called final solution.

That so much time had passed between Churchill penning "Chickens" and someone getting upset about it speaks volumes about how widely read he was prior to the objections from Hamilton. Nevertheless, reaction to a January 27 Rocky Mountain News article about the controversy was visceral and immediate, and CU was soon inundated with demands that it take punitive action against Churchill for a thought crime he'd committed more than three years earlier.

This conflagration was supposed to be addressed at a February 3 regents meeting in Aurora, but the gathering only added fuel to the fire. The regents, who asked interim chancellor Phil DiStefano to launch an investigation, seemed mostly interested in grandstanding: At one point they offered an apology for the prof's words to every man, woman and child in the U.S. But a gaggle of Churchill supporters didn't sit still for this ham-handed exhibition. They stirred up such a ruckus that the regents were forced to temporarily retreat to executive session, then rained catcalls on the officials upon their return. The session ended with two Churchill boosters under arrest and the regents on trial for incompetence in the court of public opinion.

7. March 2005: When It Leaks, It Pours

With so many details from the grand jury report making their way to reporters' desks, it was inevitable that the entire document would eventually turn up -- and Channel 9 was the lucky winner of the leakers' lotto. The station based a February 28 CU package on the report and gave a copy to their partners at the Denver Post. As expected, the jurors were highly critical of Hoffman, Barnett, Tharp and Byyny, which helps explain why university types had lobbied so strenuously to have the report sealed in the first place. But the buffaloes were out of their pen, and it was too late to close the gate.

Michael Byram, president and CEO of the CU Foundation, a non-profit organization that raises private funds for the university and had been given particular scrutiny by the grand jury, didn't care. On March 2, he informed the populace that the foundation was suing Channel 9 and reporter Paula Woodward for defamation. 'The lawsuit asserts that Ms. Woodward selectively chose excerpts from the leaked report and manipulated the order of words in accusing the CU Foundation of 'malfeasance,' which she defined to be an 'illegal act,'' Byram maintained, adding, 'We expect the media to quote accurately and take responsibility for misstatements or manipulation of fact.'

The foundation's suit hit at the least opportune moment; it made Byram seem more concerned that CU had been caught with its pants down than he was with why the belt had been loosened in the first place. Perhaps that's why the foundation quietly dropped its complaint against Channel 9 on March 23 -- three weeks later, and lots of dollars short.

8. March 2005: A Not-So-Capitol Idea

On the same day that the CU Foundation ballyhooed its lawsuit against Channel 9, Byram joined President Hoffman at the State Capitol for what was billed as an aggressive defense of the university. The notion may have looked good on paper, but it was a fiasco in execution. Hoffman invited questions during the press conference, and when those that greeted her were edgy and difficult, she grew flustered and fled, her hurried departure captured by a slew of television cameras.

If Hoffman had initially been eager for her close-up, she quickly lost the desire. She resigned on March 7, saying, 'It appears to me it is in the university's best interest that I remove the issue of my future from the debate so that nothing inhibits CU's ability to successfully create the bright future it so deserves.'

If only it were that simple.

9. March 2005: Ancestor Worship

Thanks to bloviators such as Fox News's Bill O'Reilly, the Ward Churchill affair became news from coast to coast -- and had placekicker Hnida's performance been as powerful as CU's knee-jerk reactions, Coach Barnett would have showered her with praise.

On March 24, for example, interim chancellor DiStefano had to admit that Churchill couldn't be sacked for his 9/11 remark, because of a little obstacle known as free speech. To compensate, he came up with a whole bunch of other accusations for a standing committee charged with researching bad faculty behavior to investigate. Plagiarism and fraud were the biggies, but also making the roster was the question of whether Churchill is actually a Native American, as he has long held.

This last subject is a ticklish one. In 1994, Clyde and Vernon Bellecourt, representatives of the national American Indian Movement, had asked CU to explore Churchill's family background, under the theory that he'd falsely earned tenure by claiming to be someone he isn't. At the time, university types brushed off the Bellecourts by saying that it recognized "self-identification" in regard to ethnicity -- and because Churchill said he was a Native American, that was good enough for the university. By flip-flopping ten years later, CU may have provided Churchill with all the ammunition he needs to fire back legally should the school ever let him go.

And giving ammunition to Churchill is never a good idea.

10. June 2005: Inflated Opinions

After living in a state of siege for well over a year, CU desperately needed the support of its student body. And what better way to get it than to jack up costs? On June 3, CU regents voted to raise tuition between 9 and 28 percent for in-state students.

The fiscal focus on Colorado natives was reportedly motivated by the sense that out-of-state tuition was as high as the market could bear. Unspoken was the assumption that the hits to CU's reputation had also reduced the perceived value of a degree from that institution. With parents living in far-flung regions already having more than enough reasons not to send their teenage girls, in particular, to the Sodom known as Boulder, why add radically higher prices to the mix?

A November 2004 study projected that non-resident enrollment at CU in fall 2005 would decline by a hefty 20 percent. CU spokeswoman Pauline Hale says hard numbers won't be tabulated until later this month, but she predicts that the actual dip will be less than half that total.

If the difference was made up by wannabe linebackers who think cheerleaders are included in their scholarships, interim president Brown will have his work cut out for him.


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