I had originally planned on a slightly different topic for this week’s blog, but an email I received from my alma mater last night changed my mind. First, a little background. I’m a 1990 graduate of RPI in Troy NY, a fact I’m quite proud of. Second, lately there has been a growing controversy over the shape and direction of the school administration, led by Dr. Shirley Jackson. Let me say that I find Dr. Jackson’s credentials impressive and many of her initiatives have led RPI into the right direction for the 21st Century.
But (and you knew that was coming), all is not rosy in Troy (especially today as I write, it’s a dreary, cloudy day).
So let’s back up a bit though and discuss the Streisand Effect. Originally and mainly the effect refers to bringing unwanted attention to something by trying to suppress access to information in the first place. A similar reaction can be had by telling someone, “Don’t think about a pink elephant.” Ok, how many of you were thinking of a pink elephant before I told you not to? Now how many are thinking about one? But I’m serious, please stop thinking about a pink elephant. There’s no such thing as a pink elephant. Ok, now I’m just being cruel about the whole pink elephant thing. I’ll stop.
So, back to RPI. As I mentioned not everything is as pink and rosy as it might be. Generally in cases like this, you have one of three choices. Hire a PR firm that advises you on a course of action, admit the issues and work to solve them, or to shut up and hope things blow over and people stop talking about it.
In this case the Alumni office at RPI decided to take the 4th option. They decided to send a letter to all alumni, including many who probably had no inkling of the ongoing controversies or if they did, didn’t care that it was going on. The letter was written by an RPI professor in response to a set of well-written and researched articles and a website setup by a bunch of upset alumni. Like good RPI graduates, the alumni backed up their criticisms with research and data. (For example the website notes how RPI’s credit rating has tanked over the years. An easily verifiable fact.)
The letter unfortunately did not address any of the data (except for one) and instead included highlights such as:
Could it be that the residual racism and sexism (no to mention heightism) that sits in the backs of the minds of the white male majority of our alumni makes it just a bit easier to see Dr Jackson as outside of her league, … out of her place?
Yes, somehow pointing out ongoing critical financial issues results in the Alumni office calling all alumni racists and sexists. Based on the reaction on several social media forums I’m on, after this letter, several alumni who were giving or thinking about giving have changed their minds. I obviously know only a small subset of the thousands of alumni/ae who must have received this email. But not a single one I know was convinced by this email to START donating to RPI. And at least one person who wasn’t aware of the majority of the issues said they were made aware as a result of this email and would stop donating.
So effectively, the RPI Alumni office has not only seriously insulted its donor base, it has brought attention to issues that many of the donor base apparently were not even aware of. Streisand Effect is now in full force!
I want to toss in one aside here to be clear: I am not ignorant of the fact, nor do I deny the fact that Dr. Jackson certainly has faced some pushback because of her identity. I’ve see comments about her skin color and gender and have pushed back against such comments. They’re not relevant to the issues at hand. She has faced and overcome a great deal of discrimination and dislike simply because of who she is. But, that does not make her or the Board of Trustees immune of criticism based on their actual actions and ones that are backed up by data. The drop in RPI’s credit rating is not due to who she is but rather the actions she and the Board of Trustees have made over the past 18 years.
In closing, as I step off my soapbox here; I realize this blog post is a bit off-topic from my usual fare, but it’s not really. It comes down to how we approach problems. Trying to ignore them doesn’t necessarily make them go away, but shaming a wider audience doesn’t help either, it only brings more attention to the issue. If in 2003 Barbra Streisand had decided to simply drop the issue of the photographs of her home, the issue would have faded into the woodwork and most people wouldn’t have cared.
In 2018, if the RPI alumni office hadn’t blasted an insulting and condescending email, devoid of facts to its entire alumni base, fewer alumni would know about the issues. But I can guarantee now, many alumni that weren’t aware, or didn’t care, now do.
Think about this when trying to do damage control at your company.