Public Scandal vs. Academic Merit – Does Dirty Laundry Skew Our View of Higher Learning?

We all hear the news and read the headlines. These days, there is no shortage of disgraced role models or former heroes entangled in the latest salacious scandal of the day. All too often, public scandal involves college teachers, coaches, or mentors once held in high regard and in a position of power and influence over students. Unfortunately, the bad decisions of select individuals can forever soil the reputation of a university that has worked years to achieve their good name. This begs the question: Is a public scandal enough to change your mind about a reputable college? Can so much negative backlash damage what should be an honored public image, encouraging higher learning?

What do college students think? Well, 2012 may prove to be a banner year for finding out. In the wake of the shocking Penn State case, perhaps the most talked about among education-related scandals so far this year, U.S. News and World Report is compiling the 2013 edition of the Best Colleges rankings, which will be published in fall 2012. Among the determining factors are the peer assessment reputation surveys of undergraduate academic quality, which count for 15% of a college’s overall ranking in the "National Universities" and "National Liberal Arts Colleges" categories, and 25% in the "Regional Universities" and "Regional Colleges" categories.

At California’s Claremont McKenna College, it was revealed this week that a senior administrator allegedly inflated SAT scores to improve the school’s position on college ranking guides. When asked how news of this affected their overall impression of the school and faculty, students generally responded with appreciation that the administrator came clean and volunteered the information, as opposed to trying to cover it up, according to the New York Times. Most felt it was unfortunate that the incident brought negative media attention; others thought any media attention was good exposure for the school in the national media. Some students even went so far as to say that the incident has reaffirmed their faith that they made the right choice in attending Claremont McKenna, adding that they would rather attend a school governed by faculty who are willing to admit mistakes and move on, than create an even larger spectacle and draw more unnecessary attention.

Even Penn State has slowly started to regroup after months of scathing publicity directed at their athletics administration, according to the New York Times. In the aftermath of the scandal, and with a new president, athletic director, and football coach, applications to Penn State rose more than 1% to a record high this year, and donors have also increased. As far as general public opinion is concerned, overall it seems that people tend to demand culpability from the individual perpetrator(s), and not solely the college or university they are affiliated with. The public seems to be able to keep in mind that the goals of the institution and benefits of pursuing a higher education outweigh the ethically bereft choices of one or more individuals.

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