University of Missouri spent $1.3 million on PR firm to fix negative image after protests

Two and a half years after the University of Missouri at Columbia’s race-based protests garnered negative national attention, especially after former communications professor Melissa Click went viral for threatening a student journalist, freshman enrollment is still down, costing the university millions.

And while Click may have been fired and kicked off campus for good, Mizzou can’t shake the negative image that contributed to the commonly used derogatory terms such as “safe space” and “snowflakes.” So the public university spent $1.3 million on a public relations firm to repair its negative image amid layoffs of 350 employees, according to a report from The Chronicle of Higher Education.

“We were caught off guard,” Alexander Cartwright, the chancellor of the Columbia campus who started last year, told the Chronicle, adding that, in a time of rampant misinformation that molds people’s viewpoints, rebuilding trust in any institution is difficult.

Mizzou placed blame on the press for the negative perception. On campus tours, students and parents still ask about the incident when Click tried to block a journalist from covering the protests. The Chronicle also reported that college counselors around the state say many parents have raised concerns about the protests when considering Mizzou as an option.

TWO YEARS AFTER UNIVERSITY OF MISSOURI PROTESTS, COLLEGE CAN'T SHAKE NEGATIVE IMAGE

The university’s administration embarked on a “listening tour” and hired 160over90, a branding firm, at a cost of $1.3 million over three years. At the PR firm’s recommendation, Mizzou spent $1.8 million on marketing tied to recruiting and enrolling for the fall – which amounts to about $230 per student.

A university spokesperson told Fox News enrollment is projected to be up by 14 percent and that the school has received a “significant amount of increased support from legislators, alumni and the general public.”

Kevin McDonald, chief diversity officer at both the Missouri system and Columbia campus, gave his cellphone to prospective students and families.

“I just want them to know that if they have questions, they will get answers,” he said.

In the wake of the protests, Mizzou created a council on race relations and hired more black faculty members. Some alumni were outraged at the administration’s response to bad behavior from students, while others felt the university took extreme measures and felt the president and chancellor did not have to resign.

Fox News’ Matt Finn contributed to this report.

Caleb Parke is an associate editor for FoxNews.com. You can follow him on Twitter @calebparke