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Media and Crisis Management

Wake Forest addresses a Racist Article

Posted on: July 29th, 2012

Crisis Management: Wake Forest addresses a Racist ArticleCrisis response

Wake Forest University did a good job of addressing a controversy over a racism-tinged yearbook article. The school gave the incident so much attention that a Winston-Salem Journal story characterized student and faculty efforts at a public meeting as an attempt to turn the embarrassment “into a teaching opportunity.” This case could also be a learning opportunity for the rest of us.

An article in the 2003 Howler challenged a voting process that continually produced black homecoming kings and queens when only 7% of the student body is black. The yearbook’s theme was “question everything” and the writer asked, “…should Wake Forest continue its 12 year tradition of electing a homecoming king and queen that represent only a small portion of students, or will we change our ways and elect the male and female that best represent our school?”

After distribution of 3700 of the yearbooks at semester’s start, complaints followed. Offended students began meeting with university and yearbook staff. They demanded apologies and a recall of all Howlers. A student petition with almost a thousand signatures said the article violated Wake Forest’s “for humanity” motto and its diversity statement.

Here’s how Wake Forest dealt with this dilemma:

• Administration and yearbook representatives met with offended students.

• A vice-president issued a statement saying blacks are representative of the student body and that the administration shares alumni and student dismay over the article.

• The previous year’s Howler editor wrote a column in the campus newspaper saying he ordered an article on the homecoming voting, and said in part, “I regret the oversight that happened that allowed the portions of the article that were questioned to be printed.” He also said the staff will review editorial procedures. (The administration does not regulate yearbook or student newspaper content.)

• The administration sent letters to those who received yearbooks.

• The university held a public forum to discuss the controversy. About 300 people attended.

• Although they didn’t appear at the forum, former editor Alan English and writer Nancy Rinehart provided statements of apology and explanation that were read aloud. Rinehart said, “I have offended many good people, and regrettably and unintentionally, may have inflamed racial tensions. For this I am deeply sorry.”

• In lieu of a yearbook recall, the staff sent out stickers with a new Rinehart homecoming article, without the commentary, to be placed over the old article.

This was an impressive array of responses by Wake Forest to an always emotional issue. It says much about the university’s appreciation of the inherent threat. In fact, I see only one problem-solving step missing from the overall strategy and even that may be premature. Third-party review. Should there be any question about the authenticity and effectiveness of efforts to correct a problem, have a respected independent outsider oversee them. Since there doesn’t seem much doubt about the contrition of the university and the yearbook staff, an outside “auditor” seems unnecessary.

But wait! Just when it appeared that excellent crisis management was about to close the book, another page turned. Two Wake Forest professors raised a new race issue at the yearbook forum that was been picked up by the press. The Rev. Carlton Eversley and Eric Watts questioned a 70-year old plaque honoring Tom Jeffries, a black maintenance worker who served the school when it was still in the town of Wake Forest. The Journal reported that both men found it insulting and demeaning that the plaque referred to Jeffries as “Doctor Tom.” Eversley saw the plaque as emblematic of a deeper problem, according to the Journal, with Eversley quoted as saying, “The university has failed to incorporate people of color into the faculty and curriculum.”

University spokesman Kevin Cox said the Doctor Tom reference may not be respectful now but was a term of affection at the time, and told the Journal that the administration may discuss the plaque issue.

The plaque notwithstanding, did the overall effort pay off? According to Kevin Cox, “In fact, students who have been among the most vocal on the Howler issue have also been very vocal in saying how much they appreciate the substantial and immediate administration response.”

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