The college cheating scandal has many lessons to impart on communications and how conflicting personas can hurt us in the media.

It’s always a little unsettling when higher education news spills into mass media. Rarely do any feel-good stories, stories that encapsulate the good higher ed does and the power it has to change lives for the better, make it into public conversations. And of course, the big news this week, the news we’ve all seen or heard in virtually every outlet— including my local sports radio station—is what’s hashtagging on Twitter as the #CollegeCheatingScandal. This article by The Chronicle does a great job of breaking down exactly who was paid for exactly what at each of the universities in question. 

What that story doesn’t address is what the public has been salivating over: Household names, TV and movie stars, have been arrested and charged for their roles in scamming the admissions process to ensure their children’s place at their institution of choice. And now, everything that these celebrities have said or done in the past that in light of the recent scandal appears hypocritical is being thoroughly scrutinized.  

Felicity Huffman has come under additional fire for content on her parenting blog What the Flicka. Despite that she has not written an entry for the blog herself since 2016, she’s catching public heat for some of the posts by her regular contributors. One in particular calls out teenagers for their sneaky ways and begs 16-year-olds to study and work hard so they can go to an elite institution “instead of a community college.” I’ll ignore the ignorant notion that community colleges are inferior and instead focus on the short-sightedness of allowing such content on her own platform. Granted, Huffman has a team running her site. Has she even approved or read that 2017 post? Doesn’t matter. Allow your name to be put on something, even by extension, and you will forever be connected to it. Huffman has provided the media and public with fodder for further striking down her values—not only is she a cheater, they can claim, she is a cheater who wants to hide behind a veneer of being a good parent, one who thinks teens should be punished for being sneaky, and that good work is the way to get into a “good” school.

There’s a lot more to digest. Social media has been ruthless in its trial against Huffman and others. Once innocuous posts become grounds for (deserved) mockery. One of the many, many lessons to be learned from this situation is to be incredibly mindful of the message you put out there. Make sure your words can stand, even when you’re being examined under an extremely critical lens. While it’s impossible to protect every word you say from scrutiny, don’t present one front when you know your actions convey another. Assume that everything you do can be discovered, and make sure your public persona aligns with your private actions.

And please, don’t cheat your kid’s way into college.