Managing Reputation or Rewriting History?

A friend of mine sent this piece from the Sacramento Bee.   It’s a story about  the University of California Davis paid Nevins & Associates – a reputation management firm — $175,000 to remove online mentions of a November 2011 incident where campus police pepper sprayed student protestors.  Admittedly, not the kind of images that would lead high school seniors to apply.  But it begs at least two questions.  

Question 1 is whether a state university should be spending that kind of money on anything other than essential services.  And it’s a pretty good question whether that type of PR campaign is in any way essential.  

Question 2 is a little bigger.  And it is whether this is a legitimate PR campaign or an effort to re-write history.   I don’t think any institution has an obligation to dwell on negative events in its history.  If Kent State opts not to post a picture of the National Guard shooting from 1970, I get it.  And I get that UC Davis wants to move on from its own unfortunate recent history.  So if that means it emphasizes all the good things about UC Davis, go for it.   

But reputation management takes it a step further in my view.  According to a memo from Nevis & Associates, its objective was the “eradication of references to the pepper spray incident in search results on Google for the university and the Chancellor.”  That’s not just accentuating the positive.  That is truly eliminating the negative.  And for a university, whose mission should be about discovering the truth, that seems as misguided as a face full of pepper spray.