Why Penn Won and Harvard Lost

December 28, 2023

Applying the lessons presented in my book, Leading from the Top: Presidential Lessons in Issues Management, to current events and using the book’s concepts to create your own lessons are ways of becoming a better strategic issues manager. As an issues manager, as I assess the fallout from the recent congressional hearing where two Ivy League presidents testified, I conclude:

PENN WON: The resignations of the president and chairperson of the board allowed Penn to turn the page quickly to regain momentum. The new president represents a change in course before making his first move. He will be given all the time he needs as long he is perceived as focused on the issues that precipitated the change in leadership. Remember, President Nixon promised to get us out of the Vietnam War when running in 1968. The war ended in 1973. Within that five years period, Nixon actually accelerated the conflict, but it was framed as a path toward ending the war. In issues management, after a disruptive event, leadership changes are often required in order to turn the page. Penn crafted a “lose-win” outcome which was the best that could be achieved based on its positioning.

HARVARD LOST: Harvard took the opposite approach adopting an “us versus them” posture. They assumed that the prestige of the Harvard brand was sufficient to save their president’s job. In doing so they kept the issue in the news. This lead to revelations that Dr. Gay had plagiarized parts of her dissertation and other academic works which put Harvard in a tough spot, because students who plagiarize are dismissed from university. The decision also opened Harvard up to ongoing scrutiny of its policies, admissions practices, course offerings, government grants and support from foundations as long as Dr. Gay remains in power. Harvard has been branded as anti-Semitic by some and this creates a toxic environment. Other universities are dropping their affiliations with Harvard as a result. The slow drip of events eroding an organization’s credibility is not where you ever want to be in managing an issue. Protecting the brand is always more important than protecting anyone’s job. Harvard, through its actions thus far, has created a “lose-lose” outcome which is the worst outcome they could have achieved based on their positioning.

Penn lost its president but turned the page quickly. Harvard kept its president and now finds itself stuck in mud and spinning its wheels. Penn made the right move and Harvard made the wrong move. Penn won at strategic issues management by making the tough call early.