By Adam Segal
It’s Dec. 28, and a Ryerson professor has just been arrested at Detroit Metropolitan Airport.
A drunken man is alleged to have kicked the captain of an American Airlines flight in the chest, forcing the plane’s crew to make an emergency landing.
It’s a sexy story for those who write headlines — Toronto man charged in air rage case.
Six days later, on Jan. 3, the Incident is splashed across the front page of The Toronto Star, and even though the professor had retired from Ryerson effective Dec. 31, he was still linked to the school.
Ryerson gets a black eye in the media once again.
Gripping front-page headlines about the misadventures of Ryerson faculty and students are nothing new to this school.
Over the past five years, Ryerson has had to deal with blemishes to its image caused by a professor who worked as a prostitute and condoned intergenerational sex, an engineering student who was shot and killed by police following a bank robbery, and the rave death of a business student who became a poster boy for the dangers of ecstasy.
With each scandal the school enters the public spotlight, but Bruce Piercey, Ryerson’s manager of public affairs, says the negative press has had little, if any, effect on the university’s reputation.
“The work we do throughout the year in terms of getting our name out, letting people know about successful students … is weighed against individual incidents.”
Piercey said Maclean’s annual rating of universities placed Ryerson second in the most innovative, leaders of tomorrow and best overall reputation categories.
He noted the recent newspaper articles in all the major dailies about former Ryerson theatre professor Donald MacQuarrie, the professor who was arrested in Detroit, garnered minimal coverage and had little impact on the school’s reputation.
“The fact that [MacQuarrie] had such a good reputation here is a factor in making this a one-shot story.”
Piercey said stories such as MacQuarrie’s are isolated and have few if any long-term effects on the public’s perception of Ryerson.
Stories in the past have led to a barrage of negative media coverage linked to Ryerson.
In late 1995 and early 1996, a media frenzy exploded around part-time Ryerson journalism professor Gerald Hannon, who admitted he had worked as a prostitute.
Hannon, who in 1977 wrote an article for a gay publication, Body Politic, condoning pedophilia, was slammed in a November 1995 column in The Toronto Sun.
The column, by Heather Bird, suggested that Hannon was using the classroom to “proselytize” his students on his views about pedophilia — a charge Hannon was quick to deny.
Ryerson administration suspended Hannon from teaching after the column ran and in doing so thrust him onto the front pages.
Several reporters chastised Ryerson brass for suspending Hannon, and the professor himself regularly blasted the university’s administration in the press.
The whole incident created a divide in the school and remained in the public well into the next year.
In October 1999, Allen Ho’s drug-related death at a rave led to a storm of media coverage, especially after the coroner called an inquest into Ho’s death, putting the whole rave scene under the microscope.
In most stories, the media was quick to point out that Ho was a third-year Ryerson business student.
While most negative stories like these ones don’t tarnish a university’s reputation overnight, said Susan Bloch-Nevitte, director of public affairs at the University of Toronto, the Gerald Hannon coverage “could have had some impact because it was incredibly sustained.”
Some newspaper articles even suggested financial contributions by Ryerson alumni plummeted during the Hanno fiasco.
Hanno still occasionally guest lectures at Ryerson, and offers an unendorsed scholarship in his name given out by faculty members in the school of journalism for student reporting that goes against the mainstream. He said the way the university treated him besmirched the school’s reputation.
“Rather than taking a bold initiative and saying we didn’t know about [the prostitution] and it doesn’t affect his teaching, they chose to cave in,” Hanno said. “That’s what small, frightened universities do.”
Being in Toronto, the media capital of Canada, Piercey said Ryerson stories, good and bad, may be more likely to make the front pages than at universities in smaller cities.
“We have four daily newspapers, the CBC is headquartered here, CTV is across the street at Dundas,” Piercey said. “We’re always under the magnifying glass.
“And half the people who work in the media are Ryerson graduates, so we’re well known to the media.”
Bloch-Nevitte says that’s not true. Ryerson’s media coverage has nothing to do with the graduates who fill the papers and airwaves.
“That would imply reporters are biased and I’m offended by that,” she said.
No concrete study pinpoints if Ryerson or any other university attracts a proportionally higher amount of attention in the press than other schools, but both the University of Toronto and Ryerson aggressively track whatever coverage they get.
Ryerson hires Bowdens Media Monitoring to collect all of the press clippings related to the university.
The University of Toronto has a firm that not only tracks U of T in the press, but also analyses whether the coverage is positive or negative.
Although the impact any good or bad press has on Ryerson’s reputation is not quantifiable, Piercey says public affairs has a specific mandate to promote the university — and not filling that role could have dire consequences.
“We’re here to get the good word out,” Piercey said. “Otherwise you’re subject to the whims of the [negative] stories out there.”