March 3, 2006
My Alma Mater Getting (Unwanted) National Attention

All right...I've stayed silent on this one long enough.

For those of you who don't know, I am a proud graduate of Western Kentucky University. The school has a highly respected journalism program, a top-notch communication department and an English and film studies faculty that includes many of the brightest and most discerning minds I have ever known. And there are scores of other talented folks at Western who have been doing everything they can to foster the growing national reputation of the university, including President Gary Ransdell, who I have personally seen in action, dedicating both day and night to preaching the good deeds of WKU and doing more good for the university than anyone could have imagined.

And, then, there's the school's Alpha Chi chapter of the Alpha Gamma Rho fraternity who made national news while I was visiting Kentucky when police searched their fraternity house during a party and found a goat locked in the closet, the victim of several animal rights abuses--some obvious and some alleged. The goat is believed to have been used in hazing, although the extent of use is up for debate.

I don't feel like repeating the story again for the sake of all of us in the WKU community who are hanging our heads in shame and also those of us who are sensitive to animal rights issues. For those interested in knowing the full story, the multiple-time Hearst winner WKU College Heights Herald has given this story the most extensive and balanced coverage of anything I've seen, and those stories are available here (you may have to register with the site to view them).

As Andrew McNamara records, those at WKU feel that this is just the story that comedians are always waiting for to deride "The Bluegrass State" as being full of hillbillies who love on their sisters and their farm animals. And everyone--from late night talk show hosts to news sites around the world--have picked up on the story. Bloggers are having a field day as well. See this post from Sensible Erection, this post from Jesus' General and Bob Reno's Dumbass Daily. These are only a few of many examples of the blogs written in response to this story.

University officials have been scrambling to cover this the best that they can, and I don't post it in this venue to try to further the mockery of a great school like WKU but rather to bring the discussion to a community of branding experts. What do you do in this situation, when something happens that does nothing but reinforce the very worst stereotypes about a place you are trying hard to build up? So far, they have made it clear to distance themselves from and punish the fraternity involved and have otherwise kept their mouths shut. But this is the type of story that will stick in people's minds.

Sure, the story is already starting to die down to some degree, but it is not going to go away and will lie at the back of the public's memory because of the way it has been spun and because of the stereotypes it feeds off of. The fact that the goat was used for hazing in the first place is an example of a local group trying to play off their own stereotype--AGR was (not surprisingly, based on their initials) an agriculture fraternity.

The local AGR chapter is obviously all but done for and doesn't deserve saving. They have been suspended and denounced by the national AGR organization and suspended for three years as a fraternity by WKU. But the larger question is, from a branding perspective, where does WKU go from here?