As Morgan State University has been splashed across the news because of a sensational homicide involving a student's alleged cannibalism, Stephanie Morgan worries about how the world will view her alma mater. In recent days, the East Baltimore woman has observed students communicating online about feeling unsafe or being teased about attending a school where "Only crazy people go."
"While this is most likely an isolated incident, it does not help with the image of the school or Baltimore in general," said Morgan, a 2002 graduate.
And though she doesn't believe the crime will permanently damage the university's reputation, she thinks "school officials should be more vocal about what they are doing to keep students safe and to prevent future occurrences."
Crisis management consultants agree. They say Morgan State officials should speak up about Alexander Kinyua's time at the university — before his arrest in the killing of Kujoe Bonasafo Agyei-Kodie — and his confession, according to police, that he dismembered Agyei-Kodie and ate his heart and parts of his brain.
"Tell it early, tell it all and tell it yourself," said Lanny Davis, a former special counsel to President Bill Clinton who has advised Penn State in the wake of charges of child sexual assault against a former football assistant. "That's my advice to Morgan."
The university is facing questions because Kinyua was allowed to continue as a student in "good academic standing" until May 20, when he was arrested and charged with assaulting a young man using a baseball bat wrapped in chains. He was released on $220,000 bail, and is now accused of killing his off-campus housemate two days later.
The university had a police report from December in which an ROTC instructor described Kinyua as "a Virginia Tech waiting to happen," alluding to the worst campus massacre in U.S. history. The next month, top university officials, including Morgan's police chief and chief judicial officer, were present at a campus forum on hazing where Kinyua made bizarre remarks about "blood rituals."
Morgan State President David Wilson has said next to nothing about the killing in the week since police charged Kinyua with first-degree murder. University spokesman Clinton Coleman, however, said Wilson is leading a review of the university's handling of Kinyua.
Crisis handlers say such self-examinations are vital in maintaining public confidence.
The university also released a message to students through its office of student services, saying, "We are aware that some of the Morgan family may have known the individuals involved in the tragic events being reported out of Harford County, MD and want to offer our deepest sympathies to the families of those involved." The message also offered counseling by request.
Beyond that, Coleman said, the high-profile killing has been a public relations "nightmare" in the short-term. Over time, however, Coleman said, he is not concerned that the killing will hurt the university's reputation.
"I'm not as worried about the students having it on their minds," Coleman said. "But I have given some thought to what the parents are thinking."
Coleman said the university has heard from a smattering of concerned parents but said officials have explained that the murder happened away from campus and that the suspect is in police custody. "Your child isn't in danger nor will they be," he said, adding that he has tried to correct "erroneous" impressions drawn from news reports.
Annetionette Ware, a 40-year-old marketing major from Windsor Mill, said Wednesday that she feels safe on campus and has no concerns about the well-being of her daughter, who will begin her junior year at Morgan State in the fall.
Ware said, if anything, she worries about her safety in the neighborhood around the campus.
"Everybody is communicative around here," Ware said. "Faculty and staff, they know students by first name. [The students] don't let things happen to one another. They all look out for one another.
"The police can't be everywhere all of the time. It takes people coming together to keep one another safe."
Mensah James, a 37-year-old social work major from Ghana, said he did not know the homicide victim, Agyei-Kodie, who was also from Ghana, but was saddened when he heard the news.
"Those who don't know the story about it are going to be scared," James said.
"This is the first issue I have heard about at Morgan State University, I am not sure it will affect the image," he said.
American campuses have wrestled with a succession of high-profile crises in recent years, from the 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech to the 2010 murder of University of Virginia lacrosse player Yeardley Love to last year's charges of child sexual assault at Penn State.
In most of the cases, campus leaders faced similar questions to those confronting Morgan. Could signs of trouble have been spotted sooner? Did authority figures fail to act at key moments?
In many instances, presidents and board members faced sharp criticism for their sluggishness in speaking out about what happened.
All of the cases carried their own specific difficulties, crisis handlers say, but there are common lessons to be gleaned.
Davis, the one-time Penn State adviser, said Morgan State should conduct an investigation of warning signs that might have been missed with Kinyua, talking to friends and teachers — a step the school appears to be taking, given Coleman's comments Tuesday.
Think beyond the basic facts to the types of questions that reporters might ask, Davis said.
"You can't do crisis management if you don't know all the facts," he said. "Especially the bad ones."
Once the story is known, Davis said, the university should reveal everything it legally can, describe the lessons learned and make it clear that "you know what, wisdom is always 20-20 in hindsight."
People are forgiving, he said, in the face of honest self-examination. Davis said it's a mistake for leaders to remain silent during a crisis.
"University communities are, by culture, concerned about privacy," Davis said. "They act like families, so when in crisis, they band together and huddle."
Campus leaders must fight that instinct, he said, and also resist the urge to say nothing because of concerns about legal liability.
Even before the university knows all the facts, Davis said, it's important for the president and other leaders to be "visibly and authentically out there, walking through campus, expressing empathy, concern and emotion."
The difficulty at Penn State, he said, was that after board members made the wrenching decision to fire longtime football coach Joe Paterno, "they just weren't explaining the situation. They were hunched in the trenches, taking missiles."
Davis said he told Penn State leaders, "Why can't you tell students the reasons for what you did? The question is, should [Paterno] have done more?"
Penn State was hardly the only university to seek outside help with crisis management. Virginia Tech used a media consultant in the wake of the 2007 shooting. Florida A&M University hired a New York crisis firm after taking weeks of sharp criticism in the wake of the November 2011 hazing death of drum major Robert Champion. After hiring the firm, the university announced the creation of a panel to investigate hazing and extended its suspension of the popular band of which Champion was a member.
Morgan State has opted against hiring an outside crisis adviser, though Coleman said he might have sought one if the murder had occurred on campus during the academic year.
Virginia Tech faced a barrage of questions after the 2007 shootings that left 32 dead, with a report ultimately concluding that breakdowns in internal communications caused officials to miss warning signs about the shooter.
"Once you have an event, hundreds, if not thousands of people will be analyzing things that otherwise would never have seen the light of day," said Larry Hincker, Virginia Tech's vice president for university relations. "Hindsight is going to produce 'should've dones' and questions of whether something should have been seen. It's inevitable."
Hincker said Virginia Tech vowed to be transparent from the start, asking the governor to appoint a review panel the day after the shootings.
"We said very early on that we're going to learn from this, and we're going to tell the world about it," Hincker said. "You shouldn't be afraid of analysis."
Virginia Tech actually saw its enrollment rise the semester after the shootings, and fundraising rocketed past previously established goals.
But the shootings were different than the Morgan situation, because they happened on campus and affected many more people directly. Thus there was a sense of collective coping with trauma. "It was a feeling of shock for so many people," Hincker said. "But that sense of community was instrumental."
U.Va. also tried to create a feeling of community after Love was murdered and men's lacrosse player George Huguely V was charged with the crime. President Teresa Sullivan held a campuswide "day of dialogue" about five months after the killing. The university also made a policy change, requiring students to report any criminal offenses beyond minor traffic violations. That did not stop Love's mother, Sharon, from filing a $30 million lawsuit against athletic officials, claiming they neglected warning signs that her daughter was in danger.
Morgan, the 2002 graduate and an independent consultant who focuses on health disparities in urban communities, is confident officials at the Baltimore university are doing as much as they can to prevent similar situations from occurring.
"All they can do is offer workshops and classes about safety and warning signs, which they do provide," she said. "[The university] is a good school that has gotten better over the years. I think they will continue to grow into an even greater university with time."
Regardless of the actual safety of the school, Devon Day, a junior accounting major, believes it will be put into question by those not affiliated with the university.
"The way the media twist it, the first thing you see is a 'Morgan State student,'" the 20-year-old from West Baltimore said. "A lot of parents look at it and say, 'I don't want my kid to go to that school.'"
Day was in a similar situation in 2010 when he was considering attending Frostburg State University. His family was concerned about the shooting of Brandon Carroll, a member of the Frostburg State basketball team, at an off-campus party.
"My grandmother told me not to go," he said. "That same effect will probably happen to seniors who were planning to come here in the fall."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun