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When bad things happen at good places

WITHIN THE WORLD of higher education, Duke University is widely admired for its skill in public relations. Over the years, it has lifted itself from regional icon to an elite national research university, renowned for its overachieving undergraduates, who migrate to Durham, N.C., from all over the United States. It also has an internationally known medical center, and probably the nation's most respected basketball program -- men's and women's. The Chronicle of Higher Education covers developments at Duke with an intensity it otherwise reserves for Ivy League schools.

But now Duke is rolling in a barrel of white-hot negative coverage at a time in journalistic history when news outlets are faster, more plentiful, and more unrelenting (as in 24/7) than ever before. Allegations of rape at a raucous off-campus party, involving members of the Duke men's lacrosse team, plus evidence of outrageous attitudes by at least some team members regarding race, gender, and violence have left the campus and the Raleigh-Durham community in turmoil.

Having worked on both sides of such controversies, as editor of The Boston Globe for eight years and as spokesman for my alma mater, the University of Notre Dame, from 2002 until earlier this year, I have a sense of how Duke's administrators are feeling.

At a time when a key word on Google can retrieve virtually every word written or broadcast concerning Duke, sometimes within minutes, the university's leaders cannot feel other than besieged. And because Duke is the primary focus for these administrators, it's easy for them to feel that the preoccupation of the general public matches their own. At Notre Dame, I experienced this phenomenon when, after just three seasons of mixed results on the field, we had fired our first African-American football coach, Tyrone Willingham. For two weeks the coverage was unrelenting, and the backlash so intense that even our then-president, the Rev. Edward A. Malloy, distanced himself from the decision. (It had been made by the president-elect, the Rev. John I. Jenkins, who took office seven months later.)

When controversy visits places such as Duke and Notre Dame, mighty institutions with a carefully cultivated image, the press naturally pounces. Harvard University, which in February saw its president, Lawrence Summers, resign under pressure, is but another example. Caught in this maelstrom, what does one do? A few pieces of advice:

Be true to your school. Administrators need to keep reminding themselves of the values to which they ascribe under normal conditions. And they need to keep reminding themselves of who they are as an enterprise.

Within legal and logical reason, be transparent, and, no matter what, tell the truth. Universities, even private ones like Duke, have quasi-public obligations. Truth is the bedrock of the educational process and that line cannot be crossed.

Not everyone is reading and remembering every word as you are. Remember, most Americans are still getting their kids to soccer practice and doing the other necessities of life. They are not hanging by their televisions for the next bulletin from North Carolina.

Take the long view. The same intensity of 24-hour, Internet-fed news cycles will eventually work in your favor. Somebody or some enterprise is going to take your place in the barrel. And what will you be left with? Will parents counsel their children to avoid applying to an elite school like Duke? Does anyone think Harvard permanently lost a millimeter of prestige over the Summers imbroglio?

To test this last notion, I did a LexisNexis search of the word ''Harvard" in The New York Times for the month of March. There were 180 items that included the word, only 30 of which also referred to Summers, and the vast majority of those did not involve the controversy. The citations included obituaries and wedding announcements, but most reflected the faculty's educational authority or the university's prestige. It's an average of nearly six mentions per day. Not bad for a place that suffered a substantial embarrassment the previous month.

There are serious issues within the Duke community. But when it comes to image and public relations, Duke should know that the caravan will move on. Then it can concentrate on whatever long-term remedies are required and the PR folks can get back on the phone to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Matthew V. Storin was editor of The Boston Globe from 1993 to 2001. He now teaches journalism at the University of Notre Dame.

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