Florida International University continues to botch handling of the rape charges that have been lodged against its star baseball player Garrett Wittels, who owns a 56-game hitting streak.

That streak could be on the line Friday when FIU opens its baseball season, but as of today, the school has yet to decide whether to let Wittels play. The Miami Herald said today it’s “likely” that he will play Friday.

This is an unconscionable delay in making a decision that should have been made the day after Wittels was arrested in the Bahamas in December.

Middle Tennessee State University, faced with rape charges leveled in January against two of its baseball players, suspended them from the team the next day pending disposition of the charges.

That was the decision that FIU should have made. Either that or Wittels himself should have withdrawn from the team.

The initial story on this, in the Dec. 27 Broward Palm Beach News, headlined “Deeply Religious FIU Baseball Star Arrested on Rape Charges.” It noted he recites a Jewish prayer while kneeling in the outfield before each game.

FIU’s newspaper, The Beacon, called for the school to remove Wittels from the team on Jan. 27 although it took the paper more than a month to reach that decision.

A “dark cloud” will be placed over the image of the school and a “horrible precedent” will be set if Wittels is allowed to play with rape charges hanging over his head, said the paper.

A side scandal here is the shunning of this story by the New York Times, which thus far has carried one story on it—a one paragraph item from the AP that was part of Michael Schmidt’s column in the Dec. 27 sports section.

The Atlantis Resort, where the alleged rape took place, regularly runs full page color ads in the NYT.

The paper expended hundreds of thousands of words starting in 2006 when three Duke lacrosse players were charged with rape.

Press Threats Are Another Atrocity

FIU on Saturday, Feb. 12, said Wittels and other members of the team will face the press Wednesday at 2 p.m., but if anyone asks a question about the rape charges the “press conference will end immediately.”

Furthermore, media who pose such questions could lose their credentials for the rest of the season.

Such draconian threats belong in a dictatorship and not in America. All Wittels has to do is refuse to answer the questions.

Threatening the press this way is something that FIU’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication should squash. Where is J&MC head Lillian Kopenhaver, who received the 2009 Outstanding Woman in Journalism and Mass Communication Award?

She came under ferocious attack last year in a study authored by Richard Cole, Ph.D., former J dean of the University of North Carolina.

Cole, who obtained 17 quotes from J teachers, most of them negative, said “There is no question that most faculty members want her to be removed immediately.”

PRSA Head Teaches at FIU

We would also ask where is advice on this matter from Rosanna Fiske, associate professor in Kopenhaver’s dept. and chair of PR Society of America? The Society routinely declares it leads the entire industry.

Fiske should have hot-footed it to the office of FIU president Mark Rosenberg’s the day after the rape charges surfaced on Dec. 27 and urged that Wittels be shelved until his name was cleared.

He and two other FIU students were arrested on Dec. 20, 2010 by Bahamian police and charged with raping two 17-year-old women who had been drinking at the Atlantis Resort. The Broward Palm Beach News broke the story Dec. 27. The Miami Herald followed with a story the next day which was carried word-for-word by the competing South Florida Sun-Sentinel. The papers share facilities and some stories.

Wittels was freed on bond of $10,000 and not required to make a plea, said a Feb. 11 story by the AP, which gained an interview with him.

FIU Officials Mostly Silent

Florida Int’l University brass including athletic director Pete Garcia, have kept lips buttoned about the rape charges.
FIU has ignored criticism in the past.

Cole was miffed that Kopenhaver did not respond to two phone calls from him last year. A call to a “University spokeswoman” was ignored as was an e-mailed list of questions, he said.

Cole said that in his entire career he had never seen such criticism of a dean by faculty members.

Gonzalez-Levy Heads PR

Sandra Gonzalez-Levy is SVP, external relations, at FIU, assisted by Maydel Santa-Bravo as director and Madeline Baro as assistant director.

Fernando Figueredo, former manager of a 17-country network of agencies in Latin America for Porter Novelli, is chair of the PR and Advertising Dept. in J&MC.

Phone calls and e-mails to the three were not returned as of press time.

Wittels is the most famous of FIU’s 44,000 students.

The Beacon, whose editor-in-chief is Jorge Valens, focused on the almost complete silence about the rape charges from Garcia, who has only said FIU is “continuing to gather information.”

“Staying silent is not an option unless they want to make themselves look bad on a national scale,” says the editorial.

Mid-Tenn. Did Better with Rape Charges

The Beacon noted how Middle Tennessee State University is currently handling similar charges—it suspended two baseball players the same day rape charges were made against them last month.

MTSU and FIU both play in the Sunbelt Conference.

The Beacon, which previously editorialized about the dangers of mixing alcohol and sex, correctly says that FIU should have done the same with Wittels.

It is showing the good sense that FIU is not. FIU is playing politics with this issue.

Here is what PR is--good judgment, guts and speed.

The broadest possible education is needed as well as continued wide reading and an open mind to all forms of knowledge.

Wittels and two FIU companions, who admit to having sex with two young women they just met at the Atlantis Resort in the Bahamas and who had been drinking, put themselves in an untenable position. They are in limbo until cleared of these charges.

They are not “innocent until proven guilty” as claimed by FIU coach Turtle Thomas.

That phrase will apply only when a judicial process begins. The current status of the three is that they are under charges of a felony and free on bonds of $10,000 each. Courts do not declare anyone “innocent,” only that they are “not guilty,” meaning there was not enough evidence to convict.

Jared Loughner, who fatally shot six people Jan. 8 in Phoenix, is not considered “innocent” just because he hasn’t been tried. There is no requirement for the public to presume he is “innocent.”

Silence Backfires

This website has experienced FIU’s PR policy of duck & dodge.

It’s bad enough that neither Fiske nor Figueredo will talk to us, but the same holds true for Kopenhaver. Fiske works in her dept.

Kopenhaver, who is paid $162,000, refused to talk to Cole who has conducted evaluations of faculty performance for 50 other colleges.

Anonymous quotes, obtained because faculty feared loss of their jobs, included: “I never see her”; “We have no leadership”; “You annoy her and you’re out of here,” and, “She’s in denial.”

Classes Said to be Too Big

Gripes were that the School, which has 1,600 students and 24 full time teachers, has classes as big as 350 students and that the student/teacher ratio was 131 to one. Teachers told Cole they were “overwhelmed” by their student loads.

Jane Daugherty, a Pulitzer Prize finalist at the Detroit Free Press in 1994 and a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University, told Cole she was fired because she spoke out.

“This is the only journalist school in the country that doesn’t believe in the First Amendment,” she said. “They’ve gone to great lengths to repress what’s going on.”

Rosanna Fiske
Rosanna Fiske
Fiske, whose speaking schedule we can’t obtain from PRS VP-PR Arthur Yann, should certainly feel at home at FIU.

The stonewalling, reclusive posture of FIU when questions are put to it plays against a background of hard-sell hype that exudes from the school website.

FIU describes itself as a “vibrant, student-centered public research university, ideally located in Miami, that is worlds ahead in its commitment to learning, research, entrepreneurship, innovation, and creativity so that our graduates are prepared to succeed in a global market.”

It doesn’t say what other institutions it is “worlds ahead” of.

Another section of the site provides the “Top Ten Reasons to Feel the Pride” in the school such as new programs and construction, and awards to teachers and students.

FIU is good at sending stuff out but not at responding to questions.

PR is supposed to be a two-way street.

Lack of Coverage a Mystery

National press coverage of this story is almost non-existent although Wittels is famous enough to have been nominated with four others as “Male College Athlete of the Year” in 2010.

The son of Michael Wittels, Bay Harbor Islands, Fla., orthopedist, his friends include Serena Williams and Kobe Bryant, according to the Miami Herald.

It could be journalists are cutting FIU slack because 83% of students are minority group members and 60% are Hispanic. Many are on state and federal aid.

Similar charges against students from an Ivy League college or Duke (heaven forbid!) would get much greater coverage.