Bethune-Cookman Officials Must Learn That Perception is Everything

Bethune-Cookman University has hired a new chief financial officer to help save the school from millions in operational debt and hundreds of millions potentially tied to a bad dorm deal. In using the term 'save,' this actually means someone who can find money to stash away, expenses to cut, and line items to hide or reclassify from trained auditors. 

But the new hire is the latest chapter in BCU officials' apparent inability to stop making trouble for the school. John Pittman, a former University of Central Florida vice-president, will come to BCU accompanied by a Daytona Beach News Journal outlining how he was nearly fired from his previous school for being part of a team which misappropriated public funds for a construction project. 

Pittman retired before the firing, and state auditors found he committed no crime or wrongdoing in the incident. 

Pittman could be a more than capable financial wizard for BCU at a time where the existence of the school may depend on his expertise. He could be a man of high character, who was potentially directed by higher-ups at UCF to play funny with money. Higher education has a funny way of painting people in a bad light at one campus, but earning another opportunity in another city or on another campus can reveal their true talent and leadership capacity. 

Those are things we will learn in the future and through Pittman's tenure at BCU. But today, we know that a university sinking under the perception of its own executive impropriety just hired a CFO, BCU's eighth in four years, who left his previous job under the same cloud of scandal. 

For several years now, BCU has broken almost every rule in the crisis management playbook. It has been less than transparent, and instead of galvanizing its stakeholders, its bad decisions on board memberships and executive appointments has turned supporters into near saboteurs.

Most of the story of its struggle is being told by the News-Journal, which all the while is selling newspapers and web hits on BCU's public failings. And to cap everything off, the school hires a guy tied to a financial misappropriation scandal at a school in the same state. 

As a private school, Bethune-Cookman executives know that they don't have to be accountable to anyone but themselves for how far into crisis this institution really is. But if they are depending upon public support to save it in the form of increased enrollment, individual and corporate donations and positive media press, they have to stop doing what has become a natural course of business for them - the exact opposite of what makes the most sense in a historic, totally non-sensical drama. 

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