John C. Bravman is in his third year as president of Bucknell University, in Lewisburg, PA. On January 25, 2013, he issued a statement acknowledging that Bucknell admissions officials deliberately miscalculated the SAT scores of a number of students from 2006 to 2012.
The result of the errors was that SAT scores for incoming students that Bucknell reported to U.S. News and World Report and various other college rating organizations were one point higher than they actually were.
In his statement, on behalf of the entire university, Bravman offered this apology:
These numerical omissions . . . violated the trust of every student, faculty member, staff member and Bucknellian they reached. What matters is that important information conveyed on behalf of our University was inaccurate. On behalf of the entire University, I offer my sincerest apology to all Bucknellians for these violations of the integrity of Bucknell.
This is an example of an effective institutional apology. It is doubly effective because it was voluntary. The inappropriate activity occurred during the previous administration. The distortion was minor. President Bravman could have decided to fix the issue going forward but let the matter go unacknowledged.
President Bravman knew that his statement would create much controversy and embarrassment for the university.
One clear downside for the university would be a recalculation of Bucknell’s rankings, an outcome that could conceivably have significant negative implications in terms of admissions and donations for many years. So the stakes were at once academic and more than academic.
But here’s the thing about apology. Its effects are unpredictable. That’s one reason why so many people find apology so difficult. Apology requires offenders to make themselves vulnerable. That’s hard enough without also adding unpredictability. Few institutions take such chances unless they are forced to.
So who could have anticipated what happened next?
A few days after Bucknell’s statement, President Bravman received a phone call from a donor pledging $10 million as a show of support to the university in challenging times. This pledge was the third largest donation in the university’s history. “This extraordinary expression of support was unexpected in this situation, to say the least,” Bravman said.
Announcing the Donation
The donor has asked to remain anonymous and the reasons for the timing of the donation may never be known for sure.
But I believe it’s more than likely that the president’s demonstration of integrity at least in part inspired the donation, that President Bravman’s courageous apology was a predicate for the donation. The money will go to fund scholarships to the university.
So kudos to President Bravman for demonstrating that the unpredictability of apology doesn’t have to be punitive. Indeed, it can build integrity, add to institutional learning, transform relationships, and, occasionally, inspire a $10 million windfall.