University Scandal Leaves Student Branding Questions

The current situation at Penn State is incredibly sad. My heart goes out to the victims in the case as well as the greater Penn State community.

Scandals are nothing new in higher education. In fact, when I was an undergraduate, there was an ugly incident at my university involving the photoshopping of diversity into an admissions booklet. I still remember The Daily Show covering the scandal. It was not a proud moment for the school.

Did that situation reflect on me in any way? I was just a student there, in no way connected to the situation. However, the university you attend is a big piece of your brand as a future professional. And as a student at your university, the culture of the institution becomes a part of who you are. So in moments of crisis or scandal at a university, how do you separate yourself from a place that has become or is quickly becoming a key element of your professional image?

Before Penn State’s game against Nebraska, the first game after the scandal emerged in the media and after the firing of coach Joe Paterno, I heard discussions on ESPN about the current athletes on the Penn State football team. From the perspective of those commentators, it was hoped that fans would continue to support the players who had absolutely nothing to do with the problem. But the situation still begs the question of how an affiliation with that football program will be viewed once those student athletes attempt to enter the workforce.

Every university has a reputation, and it is that reputation that often attracts–or repels–recruiting employers. The university I currently work for has a highly regarded accounting program, and we draw in top accounting firms to recruit those students. The university hasn’t faced any major scandal, so we haven’t had much to worry about on that front. But what if something did happen? Would employers view the university differently? Would they view our students differently? Would we fall off the recruiting plan for certain companies? I don’t know.

I don’t have any good answers for dealing with the residual branding issues that university scandals can leave for students. However, I do believe that it’s important to think about and discuss, because, unfortunately, I don’t think this will be the last university to face scandal. Your university is part of your brand, for better or worse. And sometimes, things beyond your control can impact how others view you. In those cases, I think the best you can do is to get a handle on your perspective and be prepared to discuss it should you need to.

What do you think? Does scandal at a university negatively impact a student’s brand? If so, what can a student do to mitigate the damage?


Laura serves as Internship Coordinator at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater in the office of Career & Leadership Development.  In this role, Laura advises students who are pursuing internships, assists employers with intern recruitment, and supports university faculty who oversee academic internships.  She also provides students with job search readiness assistance through presentations, individual counseling, and social media.  Laura earned her bachelors degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she majored in French and Political Science, and she received her masters degree in Counseling from UW-Whitewater.  To learn more about Laura, read her blog, follow her on Twitter, or connect on LinkedIn.

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