Technology can be the bane of an organization’s existence or an effective tool to propel its brand. Sometimes it is both. Are you familiar with the story of Colgate University- how technology, PR, and an issue collided to create a perfect storm for a small university community?
In 2014, a few minority Colgate University students formed a group, Colgate University Association of Critical Collegians (ACC) in an effort to bring the issue of diversity to the forefront of administrators’ minds. Their goal was to raise awareness of the university’s lack of diversity (70% white student population) and microaggressions experienced by minority students.
The group’s efforts did not go unnoticed. Colgate students took to Yik Yak, a popular app used on many college campuses, to express individually what was perceived collectively as discriminatory and abusive directed at them on campus. Anonymity is the hallmark of this app and racist students took cover under this app while spewing bigoted and hateful messages.
Colgate University student, Natasha Torres, shared Yik Yak posts from campus,
“In honor of today i will only hook up with a minority tonight”
“i love black people, my maid was always nice to me”
“stop being attention seeking and go home”
“well then maybe leave if you don’t want to deal with the realities of living in a white world”
“It’s not my fault the most noteworthy thing your people have done is convince us not to enslave you anymore”
“White people won life, Africa lost. Sorry we were so much better than you that we were literally able to enslave you to our will” (as cited in Goldman, 2015).
A three-day sit-in was organized and 300 students filled the admissions building on Colgate’s New York campus. By this point, all forms of social media were engaged. Hashtags like #CanYouHearUsNow and #ThisisColgate emerged, student video testimonials on YouTube appeared and photographs of students sharing their stories with handmade signs flooded Instagram (Stone & Kingkade, 2014). The ACC submitted a Petition of Concerns/Action Plan, a 23-point proposal for campus reform. It called for “more student-centered, culturally conscious admissions and orientation policies; more robust financial aid; improved diversity training for new and existing faculty, as well as improved attention to ‘systemic power dynamics and inequities’ in the curriculum; improved support for Colgate’s economically disadvantaged and educationally less-prepared students; and new efforts to attract and retain students from underrepresented groups” (as cited in Johnson, 2014). At this point, what do you think the university should have done? Were the students justified in taking over the admissions building? From a public relations perspective, how could the university best show sensitivity to this student body while not projecting that it was held hostage by it.
The university responded by sending top administrators to the sit-in for several hours and listening to students’ stories of having “endured incidents of racism, classism, homophobia and sexism on campus” (Johnson, 2014). The president and dean of the university addressed students at the sit-in. Then, the university administration crafted a point-by-point response to the ACC’s 23-point action plan. In a statement, Colgate President Jeffrey Herbst wrote, “We believe our response will be the basis for further discussion…Bias incidents and racism, while not unique to Colgate, are unacceptable and will not be tolerated. They have no place on a college campus, and they have no place at Colgate. We have heard you, and we will join you in the common goal of creating a campus environment that is welcoming and supportive of all of our students” (as cited in Stone & Kingkade, 2014). In addition, the university worked with local and state police to compel Yik Yak to disclose the authors of the most hateful and abusive posts.
Though some students were pleased that the university responded with a promise to collaborate with students on diversity on campus, some felt their response was “severely inadequate” and “vague” (as cited in Stone & Kingkade, 2014).
Back to my original thought- technology can be a blessing and a curse. The lead organizer, Melissa Melendez, said that though she felt deeply offended by comments made on Yik Yak, in some ways she felt grateful for it in that it exposed that racism really existed. Without Yik Yak, she claimed, it was hard to convince those around her that racism was a real thing in the 21st century. Melendez said in an interview, “Since Yik Yak was so explicitly racist and so violent, it forced a conversation on this campus that a lot of people were trying to avoid having” (as cited in Goldman, 2015).
What do you think? From a PR perspective, what else could the university have done? Did they handle the situation correctly? Do you think prospective students would more or less likely want to attend Colgate University based on the student climate and how the university deals with students? If you had been a PR practitioner, how would you have advised the university administration through this crisis?
***For a neat twist in how social media was later used by Colgate University professors to change the tone and tenor on campus, listen to the podcast:
#9 The Writing on the Wall from Gimlet: https://gimletmedia.com/episode/9-yik-yak/yik yak pos
Johnson, A. (2014, September 14). Worth watching: Sit-In at Colgate admissions office happening now. [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://studentactivism.net/2014/09/24/worth-watching-sit-in-at-colgate-admissions-office-happening-now/
Goldman, A. #9 The writing on the wall. (2015, January 14). [Podcast]. Retrieved from https://gimletmedia.com/episode/9-yik-yak/
Stone, A. & Kingkade, T. (2014, December 4). Racists posts on Yik Yak prompt student protest at Colgate University. Retrieved from http://www.splconcampus.org/blog/2014/12/4/racists-posts-on-yik-yak-prompt-student-protest-at-colgate-university