Scott D. Pierce: Almost unimaginably, the U. made itself look worse in ‘Dateline’ report about McCluskey murder

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Photos of Lauren McCluskey on display as It's On Us Utah hosts a celebration of McCluskey's life at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, Friday Oct. 26, 2018.

Even before the “Dateline” report about the murder of Lauren McCluskey aired on Monday, you had to know that it likely wasn’t going to go well for the University of Utah. Still, it was startling to see a bad situation become even worse when NBC correspondent Josh Mankiewicz interviewed the U.’s retiring vice president for student affairs.

“There are no words to express how sorry I am at the loss of this precious child. No words,” said Barbara Hancock Snyder. “There’s nothing I can say to apologize significantly — to have meaning. But we are truly sorry.”

A heartfelt apology, which some have argued has been lacking in the U.’s response. Unfortunately, Snyder didn’t stop there.

Dabbing at her eye with a tissue and speaking with great emotion, she added, “I wish people could know how hard it’s been.” As in — how hard it’s been on the staff at the University of Utah.

It’s hard to imagine a worse response.

No one doubts that U. police and administration are upset and sad. They’ve been under pressure since McCluskey, a 21-year-old track athlete, was shot to death outside her campus dorm on Oct. 22 by Melvin S. Rowland, a paroled, registered sex offender she had briefly dated. But when you do interviews — when you go on national TV — you have to keep the focus on the victim and her family, where it belongs.

Particularly because this was in part a situation of the school’s own making. As “Dateline” detailed, McCluskey’s repeated pleas for help were shunted aside by campus police.

Snyder tried to obfuscate when Mankiewicz asked about the university being “unprepared” and “sort of slow” in its response.

“I’m not sure that any institution can really fully prepare for a sociopath coming on their campus and targeting one of their students,” Snyder said — her second-worst answer.

Mankiewicz’s reply was on point and devastating: “I don’t think there’s anything you could have done to prevent a homicidal maniac going on campus and killing someone, if that had happened in a vacuum. But it didn’t.” The university “knew what she was telling you ... and you didn’t do anything.”

Snyder’s only response was that it was “a very harsh critique.”

Honestly, I felt sorry for her. Snyder shouldn’t have been the one on the “Dateline” hot seat. University President Ruth Watkins and campus police Chief Dale Brophy both declined interview requests.

At the U., the buck stops ... with the departing vice president for student affairs, apparently. Snyder is retiring this month, the U. announced in May.

NBC showed viewers the clip of Watkins saying that a report she commissioned, examining the school’s responses to McCluskey, “does not offer any reason to believe that this tragedy could have been prevented,” even though it details multiple missed opportunities.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) University of Utah Police Chief Dale Brophy and President Ruth Watkins at a press conference regarding the killing of University of Utah student athlete Lauren McCluskey, in Salt Lake City, Thursday Oct. 25, 2018.

If I was Watkins, I’d hate to have to defend that Trump-like, fact-free statement. But I’d like to think I wouldn’t send a subordinate to face an NBC reporter. That I wouldn’t leave Snyder to say, “We’re holding individuals accountable,” and then say no one has been fired because Watkins “has decided that the stronger way to approach this is just ask the people who can make a difference to make a difference.”

If I was Brophy, I hope I’d be brave enough to take on the question of why no one in my department checked Rowland’s parole status, not just leave Snyder to say, “I don’t know why that didn’t happen.

I’m not a public relations expert, but I would have vetoed anyone at the U. receiving honors for their work related to the McCluskey case, which recently occurred. Matt McCluskey said that “borders on obscene” — and “Dateline” mentioned it.

Lauren McCluskey’s parents have long made it clear they’re not happy with the U. On “Dateline,” Jill McCluskey said that Watkins’ statement “made me sick to my stomach.”

We can only imagine how the McCluskeys felt when they heard Snyder’s interview.