UVA and Bad Public Relations From Someone Who Lives Here

As a long-time public relations counselor, it is painful to watch the PR debacle around the ousting of University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan by its Board of Visitors. As a long-time “C-villian,” it is agonizing.

When blunders are obvious to the man on the street (poorly worded public statements, the media reports around hiring of a PR firm to “burnish” an image, secret meetings and seemingly blatant truth hiding), you know you’ve got trouble. And, the PR gaffes seem to continue. The damage done to the reputation of UVA will take years to overcome.

But, something else pains me about this whole PR nightmare. The impact it is having on Charlottesville, overall.

I am not a UVA graduate. I have not worked for the University. But, I am member of this community. I grew up just 25 miles outside of Charlottesville, and returned in 1999 to make this town my home. I remember the days when UVA was “just a school” and not considered a top school to attend, as it is now. I remember the days when Charlottesville would never have landed on the lists of  “best places to live in the United States” as it so often does now. I remember the days when the Charlottesville downtown mall — lauded as one of the most successful walking malls in the country — was crime-ridden and lined with abandoned store fronts. Today it is now a thriving destination for the arts, dining and shopping. In fact, I am often told by UVA graduates — my stepson included — once they get to Charlottesville, they never want to leave. I understand.

But, the utter lack of transparency and authenticity displayed bu UVA’s Board, and the disrespect shown to the larger community by an institution, which calls itself a cornerstone of our economy, history and population, boggles the mind. Why can’t they just tell their community what is really happening? And, why continue to keep the doors closed?  It would do well for the Board of Visitors and Rector Dragas to remember what Thomas Jefferson, founder of UVA, said: “Honesty is the first chapter in the book of wisdom.”