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Akst: Wake up and smell the coffee fund

Published: Friday, Aug. 10, 2012 5:30 a.m. CDT

There was only one awkward part of my Daily Chronicle columnist interview.

Former Editor Jason Schaumburg noted that sometimes my primary employer, Northern Illinois University, is the subject of news stories. Since I would be writing about issues of concern to Daily Chronicle readers, how would I navigate this potential conflict?

I told him the same thing I’m telling you: I love NIU, and I love and need my NIU job. So, I won’t intentionally investigate or sensationalize news originating from NIU. Also, I can barely see the loop from where I work. I’m certainly not in it.

On the other hand, I’m a journalist and a journalism educator, and I hate cowards, so it’s unacceptable to duck commentary on bad news if such commentary is legitimate. If I did that, I should be fired anyway.

It’s a fine line.

I urge the Daily Chronicle to vigorously pursue 1) last week’s revelations of a “coffee fund” (aka slush fund) paid for by selling NIU scrap metal to a local merchant, and 2) the substantial hierarchical reorganization of NIU senior leadership.

Meanwhile, I applaud NIU officials in saying they’re taking the coffee fund investigation seriously. I hope they follow the advice of every worthwhile public relations book ever written: get in front of the storm and tell the unvarnished truth, though there likely will be negative consequences.

Alas, universities often avoid this path until disclosure is forced. Look no further than Penn State. Notable exception: NIU won a national PR award for its handling of the shootings in 2008.

What I recommend is irrelevant anyway. Thousands of NIU employees and area residents already seem to think there’s more to the story, and they’re suspicious.

One Chronicle reader posted an online comment that, I think, captures the mood best:

“Thank you DC [Daily Chronicle] for reporting on this. I hope you will keep probing and stay with any law enforcement agency involved in this issue. Please give us the facts. Don’t hold back. The success of the town and university relies on honesty and transparency.”

Answering the demand for honesty and transparency is likely going to cause short-term damage. There’s a notion in public relations that for every negative mention an organization receives in the news media, the organization must achieve three dozen positive mentions to overcome it.

If the investigation proves to be lengthy and/or sensational, you can do the math. It’s not just an NIU phenomenon. The luster of higher education in America is wearing off. Fast.

Just over a year ago, the Pew Research Center conducted national surveys of the public’s attitude toward higher education in America. The results are depressing:

• 57 percent of Americans say the U.S. higher education system fails to provide students with good value for the money they and their families spend.

• 75 percent say college is too expensive for most Americans to afford.

• 42 percent say a college education is required to succeed in the world.

• 38 percent of college presidents say academe is headed in the wrong direction.

So NIU needed last week’s news, which inevitably will continue as the stories unfold, like a hole in the head. What we really need is to achieve several consecutive crisis-free years.

• Jason Akst teaches journalism and public relations at Northern Illinois University. You can reach him at jasondakst@gmail.com.

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