Failure to Communicate

"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.