Sadly, The List is back. No, not because of all of the allegations surrounding Herman Cain’s alleged acts of sexual harassment while he was head of the National Restaurant Association. Politico broke that story a week or more ago, with the predictable result that Cain’s candidacy is now in trouble —- NOT because he may have acted inappropriately ten years ago, BUT because he appears to be in denial about the problem. The big news is always the cover-up, not the original scandal. Duh. Like we have to keep repeating that!
But now, sweeping the entire slate clean is a scandal out of Happy Valley (the nickname for the area where Penn State is located in Central Pennsylvania) that makes all of the other perpetrators on The List look like small change. The grand jury indictment against former Penn State football defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky is appalling. Allegedly, this man in a position of great trust and influence over young boys abused at least 8 of them in the most shameful ways. The children were at-risk youth participating in The Second Mile programs that Sandusky created upon his retirement from coaching.
Already, the firestorm following the release of the grand jury indictment is engulfing the reputation and accomplishments of legendary Penn State Head Coach Joe Paterno (he is not indicted) who testified that he appropriately reported Sandusky’s misconduct when he became aware of an incident in 2002. However, commentators are already questioning whether Paterno will be able to remain at Penn State. Two other Penn State officials, Athletic Director Tim Curley and Vice President Gary Schultz, were indicted for allegedly lying to the grand jury and for failing to report the incidents to the police.
In the days to come, the airwaves will be quite cluttered with analysis and opinion on this incident. The heady arrogance of a big-time college football program like Penn State’s will get cross-examined, pilloried and defended. The legal process will grind slowly. Penn State will continue to play football and the university will go on.
Will anything be different when the klieg lights are extinguished and the scrum of reporters go home?
Not unless the leadership of Penn State and other Division I universities decide to get their values straight once and for all, which seems unlikely. There’s too much money and prestige involved to rein in the football programs too much. In the case at hand, while honoring the American legal principle that the accused must be considered innocent until proven guilty, the grand jury indictment and other apparently undisputed facts thus far raise some very serious questions for university authorities everywhere: why didn’t anyone question the fact that Coach Sandusky apparently brought these young boys along to games and on football trips, allowed them into the locker rooms and team shower areas, and was known to have them over to his home? The most fundamental risk management practices for any university should have prohibited or closely monitored these very behaviors long before the scandalous acts occurred. In the same way, after the coach retired, why was he allowed to have apparently unfettered access to the campus, training facilities and locker rooms? Here again, good risk management practices make sure that people who have access to campus facilities have a reason to do so.
Perhaps Penn State can answer such questions very effectively, but there’s a lesson for all universities in this very sorry case. From the trustees and president on through the organization, all personnel who work in a college or university must be held to very high standards of personal conduct. Universities must work intentionally and systematically at creating a culture of risk management that places protection of students, guests, visitors and children at the center of best practices.
Here at Trinity, we pay a great deal of attention to risk management, and our Harassment Policy is very tough. Even so, and despite our vast difference from a campus like Penn State, the scandal there will cause us to re-examine our policies and re-educate all personnel to be sure that every person on Trinity’s campus gets the utmost protection from the potential for harm.
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