Penn State’s shame is already a textbook case in scandal — how to create a scandal; how not to manage it; the inevitable consequences of moral failure among many people who should have known better.
How to create a scandal: do nothing when someone in a position of trust commits a terrible crime. How many times do we have to see this movie to understand its plain meaning? What Jerry Sandusky did to young boys is heinous, unforgiveable, repugnant and depraved. But the real scandal started when other people who should have known better did nothing.
The grand jury presentment only raises more questions about the common sense judgment and moral compasses of people who have, so far, escaped indictment but not consequence. Why didn’t the 28-year-old graduate assistant immediately intervene and stop Sandusky from molesting a boy in the football showers when he witnessed that act in 2002? Why didn’t Coach Joe Paterno immediately call the police when the graduate assistant went to him? Why didn’t the athletic director, vice president and president call the police, ask to know more about the victim, launch a full-fledged investigation?
To their sorrow, all of these men are now without jobs, except the graduate assistant who is still an assistant football coach. Two of them — the athletic director and the vice president — are indicted. What could they have done differently to prevent this tragedy?
Lesson #1: Act immediately. “If you see something, say something” is not just for terrorists. No person in any position of responsibility on a university campus can just sit back and say it’s someone else’s job to intervene.
How NOT to manage a scandal: fail to communicate immediately and effectively. News reports claimed that the trustees of Penn State learned about the indictments on the radio. Yikes. True or not, what is obvious is that the campus and its board were largely caught off-guard by the grand jury action. Yet, the grand jury had been investigating this case for three years, and the principal actors, including Coach Paterno and President Graham Spanier, had testified. Surely, while perhaps not knowing the exact date the indictments would come out, the leadership could have planned crisis communications more effectively, and the board could have taken charge even earlier.
Lesson #2: Communicate often and honestly! When bad news is coming down the pike, leaders cannot, must not hide. Confronting the truth and owning up to the crisis is the only way to keep it within some manageable parameters and to prevent harm to the institution. A university president must be willing and able to communicate the truth clearly and directly, even at the risk of his or her job. Our #1 responsibility is to protect the human beings on our campuses, and our #2 responsibility is to protect the university itself from harm. (See my article on “Campus Communications in the Age of Crisis” in AGB’s Trusteeship magazine.)
How to improve common sense and moral judgment: well, until the day comes when we can do transplants of spines and souls, this may be the most difficult question of all. But absent miracles, an ethical campus administration has to take a highly pro-active stance on continuous education of the university workforce for ethical and moral conduct. The leadership has to model the expected behaviors, and must use every opportunity to promote the right course of action.
Lesson #3: Educate, re-educate, repeat the lesson. Today I sent this email to the Trinity campus community about our policies on Child Protection, Harassment and protection for whistleblowers. These are standard policies that all universities should have. We provide continuous education for our faculty and staff about how to prevent violations of our policies and how to report problems. We are also bound by the federal law on campus crime reporting (the Clery Act) to report crimes and threats, which we do routinely. The U.S. Department of Education is currently investigating Penn State for failing to report the alleged acts of child abuse.
Express Care and Concern for the Victims: among all of the sins of omission in the reports about this case, none is more horrifying than the absence of any expression of care or concern for the victims of Sandusky’s behavior at the time the misconduct was allegedly reported to university leaders. If the reports are true, neither Paterno nor Spanier nor others even bothered to learn the name of the 10 year-old boy allegedly raped in the showers. Such obstuseness leaves me breathless. No matter what happens or who’s responsible, the first and only meaningful question when someone is hurt is: who are they, where are they, how can we get them help?
Lesson #4: Bring your humanity to work every day! There’s a bad habit we seem to learn in driver’s ed: if there’s an accident, stay with your car but say nothing, admit nothing. Do not open the door to admitting faulty.
Child sex abuse is not a fender bender. Failing to express immediate concern, to show up at the scene of the crime and to do everything possible to make sure the victim is cared for properly is an appalling breach of common human decency. So what if the lawyers are grouchy afterward? I suspect they’re even more grouchy right now in Happy Valley.
At the end of the day, the only question that matters before the highest court of all is whether we do the right thing for someone who is hurt and suffering. Leaders who have a clear conscience on that question have a high probability of setting a tone on campus that will also reduce the opportunities for scandal in the first place.
Pray for the children so brutally violated in this mess. And, yes, pray for colleagues at Penn State, especially the students who trusted the integrity of their leaders and icons.
See my blog “The Devil We Know” on HuffPostDC
Follow me @TrinityPrez
See: Tracee Hamilton, “A scandal that so easily could have been avoided,” Washington Post November 10, 2011