The University of Dayton has worked hard to craft an image of an institution in which academic excellence is paired with the Marianist spirit of community service.
But that image has taken a hit this year with a tumultuous sequence of events, from a mob scene on St. Patrick’s Day to two recent incidents of freshmen falling from sixth-floor dorm windows. Larry Cook, 18, died from a fall April 2, while Michael Fuchs, 19, is recovering from injuries suffered in an April 20 fall.
As students prepare to head home for the summer, UD officials, as well as students and alumni, are left wondering whether the recent tragedies will have any lasting impact on the reputation and public image of the more than 160-year-old institution.
An immediate impact is hard to measure: the university has received a record 15,900 applications in the fall’s entering class, and it projects surpassing 16,000. In all, applications are up 8 percent over last year, even as the university has become more selective, accepting only 52 percent of applicants for the fall.
“I don’t, at this point, see an adverse effect on our university in terms of recruiting,” said university President Daniel J. Curran. “Obviously we’re all saddened by these unfortunate events of the last couple months. But if you’re really true to your traditions and the community you set up, you realize the community will be resilient. The momentum we displayed in the past years will continue.”
But there is no denying the school has had a difficult year. Several incidents gained national exposure, starting last October, when Flyers basketball player and senior Matt Kavanaugh was suspended for violating the student code of conduct after he was named a suspect in a sexual assault investigation that did not yield criminal charges.
In November, 80 students on a chartered bus trip damaged a gas station in London, Ohio, resulting in the fraternity being suspended for two years. Then, on St. Patrick’s Day, police from 10 agencies wearing riot gear were called to disperse a crowd of more than 1,000 people in the student neighborhood; broken glass bottles littered the street and 11 cars, including a police cruiser, were damaged.
In January, the university announced it will work for two months to reinforce the floors of 301 student houses as a “precautionary measure” after the floors of two homes sank during large parties. UD issued also new occupancy limits for all houses and apartments, limiting between 12 and 20 people depending on the structure.
The tragedy struck on April 2, when Cook fell to his death from a sixth-floor window in his dorm at the Stuart Complex. The Montgomery County Coroner’s Office ruled his death a suicide, but his family has hired a lawyer to dispute that ruling and claims a cover-up by the university and police. Just 18 days later, Fuchs fell from his bedroom window in another dorm. Police are investigating both cases and have ruled out foul play.
In the same time frame, UD gained national attention hosting the NCAA First Four and second- and third-round men’s games, the women’s basketball team set the school record for number of wins in a season and the women’s volleyball team was nationally ranked.
Media across the nation also reported on the hiring of former United States Ambassador to the Holy See, Miguel Díaz, as a professor.
‘A mixed bag’
UD Student Government Association President Emily Kaylor said that, as a graduating senior, she worries about how the recent negative events make the university look to those on the outside. “However, I think that if people get to know UD and come to UD, they’ll understand that the way that we can be portrayed isn’t the way we are 100 percent of the time,” said Kaylor, a Kettering native. “We’re good students. Bad things happen everywhere and mistakes happen everywhere, and that’s not what we want to be known for.”
Sophomore Libby Durnwald of Toledo acknowledged, “These events could elicit negative reactions on campus by both students and faculty.” Yet, she said, the opposite has happened, with the campus coming together for prayer, support and discussion about what needs to change in campus culture. “The strong communal response to these events upholds the Marianist values of UD and demonstrate how students, faculty, staff, and administrators can work together in tumultuous situations,” she said. “This should not taint the university’s image.”
Curran said the incidents have strengthened the UD community’s resolve. “A tragedy at a university is really a very trying thing,” he said. “It’s really a time you fall back and rely on the traditions that built your university in the first place.
“When you talk about the University of Dayton, and if you talk to any of our students, the fact is we care a lot about each other,” the president said. “It’s about the fact that you’re not simply along for the ride in the community, you’re an involved individual. And being an involved individual, when tragedies come up like these, you have to support each other.”
Yet Hillary Williams of Centerville said she would be hesitant for any of her sons to consider UD if they were going through the selection process today. “The freshman year is so hard for many kids,” she said. “My heart goes out to these two young men who have had the worst experience one can imagine. I am sure that their parents never thought that sending their kids off to college would be so dangerous.”
The lawyer for the Cook family, Florida attorney Christopher Chestnut, said he will be filing a lawsuit soon to force the hand of students who he suspects have information about the circumstances of Cook’s death because the university “has so frustrated the process” of gathering information.
Dayton Police said they have no indication Cook’s death was not a suicide, but they have not concluded their investigation and await results from toxicology and other tests. Cook’s family has strongly contested he committed suicide. Chestnut has declined requests to disclose evidence in his investigation.
“We are very confident that Larry’s death is not a suicide and there are people on UD’s campus who know what happened,” he said.
Chestnut said the “downside” for the university about a lawsuit is that “it is all public record. So it’s going to come out what happened, and I think it’s going to be harmful to the school.”
Durnwald said that most UD students believe that the university and the Dayton police have done a good job of investigating Cook’s death, while remaining respectful of the family’s feelings.
‘Courage to make changes’
Durnwald was aware of UD’s party school reputation when shopping for colleges, but she now believes it’s overblown. “We get ranked as being a party school because we have student neighborhoods, but those neighborhoods add to the element of safety and enrich the sense of community,” she said. “People really look out for each other, and the family spirit is very much a part of campus culture. Students choose where they live based not on size of the house, but the size of the porch.”
Andrew Hunt of Kettering, who earned his bachelor’s from UD in 2009 and his master’s in 2012, is not too worried about the long-term damage to UD’s reputation. “While these events are very sad and will affect the university’s image, I don’t think it’s irreparable,” he said. “While all of these events have happened in the same year, we’ve had the same sort of events before — St. Patrick’s in the 70s and 80s, occasional suspensions, and a suicide every so many years, just never really at the same time.”
Hunt said there has been an informal consensus when he talks with fellow alumni on social media: “It’s a bit of a mixed bag of responses, some are saddened by some of the events, many more are sort of ashamed of some of the events, most especially the St. Patrick’s day riot and the letter that was sent in preparation for St. Patrick’s day this year (it ended up on a number of websites). Overall though, we’re still very proud of our Alma mater, just wish certain people’s actions weren’t what happened.”
Public relations expert Jason Maloni, a 1992 UD alumnus, said although the incidents are unrelated, they can come together to paint a picture of the university. “It does not take much for an incident or two to form an impression in people’s minds,” said Maloni, senior vice president with the global public relations firm LEVICK.
Maloni said negative stories have overshadowed the positive ones, and that is especially true in today’s social media-focused environment where information — factual or not — travels fast. “Commentary on the pope is very wonderful, but that’s not the kind of story that makes the front page of Deadspin. That is the nature of the news and human nature. It speaks more to really what web viewers are interested in,” he said. “A lot of these issues are sadly what happens in the course of normal student life. Nobody writes a story about planes landing safely. They write a story about planes crashing.”
Still, Maloni said he does not see any evidence that there’s an issue with how the university is handling matters.
Curran, who has been UD’s president for 10 years, echoed that opinion. “Because I have a more national perspective and see things that are happening throughout the U.S., I realize these things happen periodically at university campuses,” he said. “Over the years, we’ve been very good at addressing issues that have occurred.”
Curran said he is proud of the response so far, but “it’s a long process and you have to have the courage to make changes. We have to keep looking at what else we can do better.”
“No community is a perfect community, and every community should be working to build itself to be better, and that is one of the challenges that has come forward and is something we have to address,” he said.
A troubled year for University of Dayton
UD has made national headlines this year for two students falling from sixth-floor windows, its popular St. Patrick’s Day party ending in a near-riot with police and a basketball player suspended from school for a year after he was identified as a suspect but never criminally charged in a sexual assault allegation.
August 2012: University of Dayton basketball player and senior Matt Kavanaugh was named a suspect in a sexual assault investigation that did not yield criminal charges, according to the Montgomery County Prosecutor’s Office. UD police reports list the victim as a 17-year-old female freshman.
September 2012: UD police investigate six violent crime incidents on or near the campus. “It’s unusual for this neighborhood to have as many incidents as we’ve had this year,” said UD Police Maj. Larry Dickey. Police said they made one arrest in one of the crimes.
Oct. 24: Kavanaugh suspended for the year “as a result of violations of the University of Dayton Standards of Behavior and Code of Conduct.” UD officials declined to disclose the reason behind Kavanaugh’s dismissal.
Nov. 17: University of Dayton students on a chartered bus trip are accused of disorderly conduct at a gas station in London, Ohio. Police said 80 students on two school buses were seen running through the Lake Side Plaza Marathon station, urinating on the floor, flashing their genitals at customers, breaking items and standing on parked cars. The students were reportedly intoxicated. The Sigma Chi fraternity, which sponsored the trip, was suspended for two years in connection with the incident.
Jan. 23: A UD female student claims she was sexually assaulted by two people in the same incident. She said she was assaulted by an acquaintance and a stranger, which prompted the school to send a safety advisory email to the student body.
Jan. 30: UD announces it will work for two months to reinforce the floors of 301 student houses as a “precautionary measure” after the floors of two homes sank during large parties – with between 35 and 50 people – earlier in the month. UD issued new occupancy limits for all houses and apartments, limiting between 12 and 20 people depending on the structure.
Feb. 17: During a basketball game between rivals University of Dayton and Xavier, UD fans began taunting Christi Mack, the UD hall of fame candidate and the wife of Xavier’s coach, Chris Mack using nasty terms, including: “Christi Hester is a b——! Christi Hester is a b——-!” The incident left Christi Mack crying, and UD Arena security personnel had the offending fans removed from the arena.
March 17: More than 1,000 people caused police from 10 local jurisdictions to respond to UD’s student campus housing area, also known as the ghetto, for a “disturbance” that left hundreds of broken beer bottles in the street and yards and 11 damaged cars, including a police cruise. UD bans non-university sponsored events on campus. The website, BroBible.com, ranks UD as hosting the best college St. Patrick’s Day party in the country.
April 2: UD freshman Larry Cook, 18, died after falling from a sixth-floor window in the Stuart Complex residence hall. His death was ruled a suicide by the Montgomery County Coroner, but his family disputes that ruling. The family felt the university was premature to declare the teen’s death a suicide, and that their hastiness compromised the investigation. They have hired a Florida attorney, who is conducting his own investigation. Dayton police are investigating Cook’s death, as well.
April 20: Michael Fuchs, 19, of Edison, N.J., fell from his sixth-floor dorm room in the Marycrest Complex residence hall. Dayton police said the screen of Fuchs’ dorm room window was removed and Fuchs climbed out, although it remains unclear why. Police do not suspect foul play or a suicide attempt.