Apologies are definitely in the air. It’s as though the #metoo movement has sprinkled magic contrition dust across the media landscape, with a new apology blossoming in the wake of each new revelation of sexual harassment, violence, and abuse.

Unfortunately though, especially for those survivors who all deserve meaningful apologies if they desire them, what is most readily available are examples of what NOT to do.

From the bizarre, to the self-indulgent to the self-promotional, to the antagonistic, to the recipe-enhanced, the common thread across these apologies is that they’re truly terrible. And in the wake of all this terribleness, the world has responded with many, many apology tutorials for folks because we want to believe that the problem, really, is a skill gap rather than a will gap. Mario Batali didn’t know that dropping a fav cinnamon roll recipe at the end of a sexual harassment mea culpa was not cool.

(Ok, I should point out at least one public apology that appears to have been helpful to the person who experienced the harm. More on this later.)

But, if I were a college or university instead of a human being, bad examples of apologies also wouldn’t be hard to find. What I haven’t seen, though, is the concomitant guidance for universities in offering apologies–even as there is plenty of reporting about situations that undoubtedly merit an apology to those who have been, to borrow the moniker of Dr. Jennifer Freyd’s groundbreaking work, betrayed by institutions they loved and trusted. And this feels like a strange omission. After all, there is research out there from the world of business on the positive effect of apology on an organization’s brand, its customer loyalty, and its overall bottom line. Some executives have even made apologizing a profession. A good apology is good for business.

But, you may think, it’s one thing to apologize for a canceled flight or a cold cup of coffee–it’s entirely different to take responsibility when someone’s life or well-being has been permanently harmed. Think of the institutional risk!

Yes–let’s consider risk. I’m not a university in-house lawyer or an institutional risk manager, though I have many colleagues in those jobs and I’ll be the first to note that their work is both difficult and complex. But, I am someone who relishes a good heap of data. And as it turns out, there is also quite a bit of data indicating that even when it comes to something like medical harm–poor patient outcome due to medical error–there are significant positive outcomes for institutions, physicians, and patients or surviving loved ones when the person who has committed the harm (often with good intentions, or minimally, without malice) apologizes. The body of evidence is so strong, in fact, that it has shifted the prevailing legal wisdom from, as one author noted, “deny and defend” to acknowledge, apologize, and amend.

Unfortunately, there is not enough research yet on the impact of an effective institutional apology on the well-being of survivors or the greater campus community, or on mitigating risk and losses due to litigation. One of the issues is that, unlike medical errors or customer service mishaps, it is usually not the institution that commits the initial harm–and apologizing for the behavior of another person is not always helpful or appropriate. As Freyd’s and Carly Smith’s research makes clear, however, “institutional action and inaction that exacerbate the impact of traumatic experiences”–such as failing take appropriate action following a report–too often inflicts a secondary harm that is a locus of institutional responsibility and would be an appropriate subject for apology.

How then, does a school effectively apologize? Researchers in organizational behavior, Ryan Fehr and Michele Gelhand outline three different elements in an apology: offers of compensation, expressions of empathy, and acknowledgements of violated rules and norms. Each of these deserve a bit more explication. Fehr and Gelhand stress that in an apology, compensation isn’t necessarily financial (though that could certainly be a part), but could be other offers to repair the harm. insuch as revising policies, instituting additional training, or funding survivor advocacy positions. The key here is that offers of compensation address a survivor’s concerns about equity.

Expressions of empathy, on the other hand, focus more on restoring disruptions in relationships, which it is easy to imagine may be exceptionally important in instances when a survivor’s trust and belief in an institution has been ruptured. Fehr and Gelhand stress that voicing expressions of empathy requires both a socio-emotional dimension–“expressing warmth for victims or compassion for their suffering”–and a cognitive dimension–”understanding the victim’s point of view or the consequences of the offense for the victim’s well-being.”

Finally, Fehr and Gelhand identify that for some survivors, an apology that includes a recognition that the person or institution “violated rules and norms” widens out the restoration of relationships to also include the wider community, the harmed person’s place in that community, and the authority or responsibility of the violator.

The elements of an apology that may be most helpful depends on the person or community harmed. An effective apology, therefore, starts with an institution first listening carefully and respectfully to the harmed persons so that the scope and the specificity of the harm is clearly understood–and so that the harmed person has an opportunity to reflect on what might be helpful to them in promoting their healing. Careful listening can also ensure that a college deliver an apology in the way that would be most effective. Is the apology delivered publicly or privately? Is it delivered in person (and by whom?), through a written format, or both? This kind of attentiveness says to the survivor: “I have heard you, you matter, I care about what happened to you, I want to help make it right if I can.” When survivors in a recent high-profile institutional incident said “we don’t want your money,” it is a flag that there was likely not enough listening before a compensation apology was offered.

Colleges must recognize also that apologies are not gifts to the harmed person, and therefore there should be no expectation of an exchange, be that forgiveness, public acknowledgement of the apology, a lessening of the negative feelings towards the person or institution, or a decision to not pursue other legal remedies. All of these outcomes are possible, but they should not be expected or solicited.

Most importantly, as bioethicist Nancy Berlinger reminds us, “[a]pologies are rarely, if ever, the only right thing to do.” Jennifer Freyd calls on campuses to also demonstrate what she and her research colleagues have termed “institutional courage.” Yes, responding sensitively to survivors and apologizing are a part of institutional courage, but these steps are only the starting place. Institutions also should endeavor to, for example, engage in vigorous self-study, become educated on sexual violence and trauma, and gather and share data about this issue transparently with the entire community. These actions, along with effective, meaningful, survivor-informed expressions of remorse and offers to make right, are what makes an apology more than just words.


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