How universities can avoid the next chocolate milk/concussion debacle

The following guest post is by Earle Holland, former Assistant Vice President for Research Communications at Ohio State University. He’s now one of our regular reviewers and blog contributors. His post was sparked by our review of a dubious University of Maryland news release and the university’s subsequent stonewalling on questions related to that release. 

This is no way for a public university to handle legitimate questions about its research.

This is no way for a public university to handle legitimate questions about its research.

The University of Maryland/chocolate milk/concussion case Andrew Holtz confronted is not as rare as you might think, and it’s a classic example of errors on all sorts of levels. While I admittedly have no inside information on the specifics of this case, my 35-plus years of handling research communications at a major public university provides some clues as to what’s going on here.

First off, the news release in question was distributed via PR Newswire, a commercial news release dissemination service most often used by business and industry. Research universities seldom use the service since its offerings are usually commercial in nature and the cost the service charges per news release is fairly extravagant, given the typical budgets of university news operations.

Secondly, the source of the information is the Maryland Industrial Partnerships program, one of the dozens of operations that emerged at public universities in the last decade or so to try to financially capitalize on the research the institution conducts. Much of the impetus for such operations comes from growing pressure from state legislatures seeking a return on their investments in higher education and institutions are eager for success stories they can tout. Examples have been Gatorade, originating at the University of Florida, or the blood-thinner Warfarin from the University of Wisconsin. The problem is that these successes are the exception to the rule.

Regardless, in many cases I have seen in the past, these entrepreneurial operations work outside the process most university news operations have to control what topics become news releases. It’s common knowledge on campuses that institutions have invested major funding to operate these industry partnerships and leadership often doesn’t want news release policies — if they do exist at all — to interfere with potential windfalls. So the heads of these operations often have the final say on what releases they produce, rather than the university’s news officials.

In such cases, and the chocolate milk episode seems to be one, the release arises from a unit at the university and the institution as a whole is seen as responsible. And in light of a case where the “news” may be questionable on deeper inspection, the institution must choose to admit its loss of control over the actions of one of its units, or simply refuse to comment and hope the story fades. The University of Maryland apparently chose the latter course.

Based on my experience, these kind of cases can be avoided fairly easily. It requires setting a detailed policy on what does, and more importantly, what does not warrant issuing a news release. Is the proposed release first and foremost based on published research or work presented at a major scientific meeting? If the work involves humans, was it approved by the institutional review board (IRB) responsible for the oversight of such work? Are there real or perceived conflicts of interest on the part of the researchers that might influence their findings? Are the researchers willing to talk to the news media about the work — otherwise why would a release be issued? There are others I can suggest but this would be a start.

It also requires a senior university official who is both willing and authorized to make the tough decisions. Surprisingly, that’s fairly rare since most senior communications officials on campuses don’t have the scientific understanding to make such determinations and those who do lack either the power or the willingness to make an issue of such cases.

As in this case, the University of Maryland’s reputation has taken a hit concerning this news release and the apparent problems surrounding the “research.” And its decision to stonewall any comments on the situation, especially to widely respected reporters, just amplifies the error.

Public universities have a responsibility to the people that cannot be bartered off in hopes of some major financial score, nor can they behave ostrich-like and hope tough questions will go away. That’s the lesson of the day.

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Comments (2)

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Marc Kusinitz

January 18, 2016 at 12:04 pm

I appreciate Earle Holland’s post. I recognize the problem caused by individuals/committees/organizations responsible for raising money for a research institute succumbing to the temptation to hustle up press coverage themselves. I remember an incident at a previous job in which it took a conference call between our important and very able fund-raisers and a very high-ranking authority (and scientist) in the institution to stop what could have been an embarrassing scientific claim—one I was refusing to write a press release on. (The work involved was a very nice application of an existing technique, not the invention of a technique, nor the development of a medical product, but rather a nice step along the way). I remember hearing the voice of the main individual pushing for the press release claiming the institute had develop an important medical product against a dangerous infection. He said, in so many words, that even though he was a simple, small-town lawyer, he knew a big story when he saw one. That incident did not end for good attempted meddling by money raisers. Nor is it an isolated case, as the University of Maryland incident (and other incidents) show. I guess this sort of problem has existed ever since the invention of money: some of those individuals with a lot of it—or who control where it goes–think they know what’s best in a field they have no expertise in—and some people believe they do (reminiscent of Tevye’s comment in Fiddler on the Roof). I wish the University of Maryland public relations group better days and more authority and respect. Disclosure: Although I am not legally, professionally, or academically connected to the university, I have a close, indirect connection, which explains why my comments here are more of despair and not full-throated outrage. Thanks for the opportunity to comment.

    Earle Holland

    January 18, 2016 at 10:32 pm

    Thanks for your comments, Marc. This really boils down to a question of short- versus long-term goals. In the short run, ignoring safegaurds is an easy way to see rapid benefits for an institution, of I. This case a unit of an institution but the risk is damage to the reputation of the whole university, which is what happened in this instance. Although UMd has announced a “review,” it’s not clear how broad that will be, or if it will cover enough issues. The bottom line is that research universities need a strong policy governing research communications and strong individuals empowered to police that. Unfortunately, few institutions see this as a priority and their reputations –and the public–ultimately suffer for that loss.