Report on the Penn State Abuse Case: A Lesson for Us All

Today, the official report on the Penn State abuse case was released. The law firm of Freeh Sporkin & Sullivan prepared the report for the Penn State Board of Trustees. It is well over 200 pages long, including extensive appendices. The abuse case centers in the activity of Gerald A. Sandusky, a former assistant football coach at Penn State. But the crisis at the university extends far beyond the crimes of one man. Here’s on the section of FINDINGS in the Freeh report begins:

The most saddening finding by the Special Investigative Counsel is the total and consistent disregard by the most senior leaders at Penn State for the safety and welfare of Sandusky’s child victims.

So, though it was Sandusky who sexually abused many children, the report indicts the senior leaders of the university, as well as its corporate culture.

From http://www.flickr.com/photos/jcapaldi/

It would be easy for most of us to look down our long noses at Penn State and its leaders. I don’t in any way mean to exonerate them. But, I believe we all miss an opportunity if we simply sit back and cluck our tongues in righteous disapproval. I believe we should let the Freeh report serve as a mirror that might help us see our own shortcomings and work towards helping our own institutions to be more just and caring.

I’m thinking, in particular, of the way Penn State’s corporate culture kept the institution from protecting children and dealing justly with a predator. I’ll let the Freeh report speak for itself here:

One of the most challenging of the tasks confronting the Penn State community is transforming the culture that permitted Sandusky’s behavior, as illustrated throughout this report, and which directly contributed to the failure of Penn State’s most powerful leaders to adequately report and respond to the actions of a serial sexual predator. It is up to the entire University community – students, faculty, staff, alumni, the Board, and the administration – to undertake a thorough and honest review of its culture. The current administration and Board of Trustees should task the University community, including students, faculty, staff, alumni, and peers from similar institutions and outside experts in ethics and communications, to conduct such a review. The findings from such a review may well demand further changes. (p. 18)

By pointing to the cultural issue, the report is not excusing those who did wrong personally. But, it is identifying as one cause of the problem a corporate culture that “permitted Sandusky’s behavior” and “contributed to the failure of Penn State’s most powerful leaders.”

The last chapter of the report contains a series of “recommendations for university governance, administration, and the protection of children in university facilities and programs” (p. 127). The first section of this chapter focuses on “Penn State Culture” (129-130). It states the problem in this way:

Certain aspects of the community culture are laudable, such as its collegiality, high standards of educational excellence and research, and respect for the environment. However, there is an over‐emphasis on “The Penn State Way” as an approach to decision‐making, a resistance to seeking outside perspectives, and an excessive focus on athletics that can, if not recognized, negatively impact the University’s reputation as a progressive institution. (p. 129)

The report recommends that university leaders “should consider taking the following actions to create a values- and ethics-centered community where everyone is engaged in placing the needs of children above the needs of adults; and to create an environment where everyone who sees or suspects child abuse will feel empowered to report the abuse” (p. 129). In particular, university leaders should:

Organize a Penn State‐led effort to vigorously examine and understand the Penn State culture in order to: 1) reinforce the commitment of all University members to protect children; 2) create a stronger sense of accountability among the University’s leadership; 3) establish values and ethics‐based decision making and adherence to the Penn State Principles as the standard for all University faculty, staff and students; 4) promote an environment of increased transparency into the management of the University; and 5) ensure a sustained integration of the Intercollegiate Athletics program into the broader Penn State community. (p. 129)

In general, Penn State should “Emphasize and practice openness and transparency at all levels and within all areas of the University” (p. 130).

A Lesson for Us All

So, you might wonder, where is the “lesson for us all” that I promised in the title of this blog post? Let me explain.

All organizations and institutions have distinct corporate cultures that guide behavior, establish norms, and clarify group identity. This is true of small families and giant corporations, of military units, churches, and schools. In many cases, we are not aware of the culture of the groups in which we find ourselves because it operates invisibly and feels normal. At Penn State, for example, it felt normal to protect the vaunted football program. It would not have felt normal to report a coach to the police, thus embarrassing both the team and the university (and perhaps scaring away recruits and discouraging generous donors).

We all function within corporate structures that have their particular cultures. Aspects of these cultures help our groups and organizations to thrive. Yet, other aspects of these cultures can keep us from flourishing. They can even lead us to do wrong or break the law. For example, loyalty to people within your organization can be a good thing. But it can also keep us from making wise personnel decisions, or even from reporting to the police those who have committed a crime.

I believe that we and the organizations of which we are a part would all be well-served if we took seriously the recommendation of the Freeh report to “vigorously examine and understand [our own] culture[s].” What are the beliefs and values that guide us, really? What are the upsides and the downsides of these cultural elements? What would happen in our organization if someone was thought to be doing something illegal, including but not limited to molesting children? What if you knew one of your colleagues was doing something that was clearly immoral? It’s easy to suppose that we would all do the right thing. But experience has shown that corporate cultures routinely keep people from doing right and reward them for doing wrong.

If we stop pointing our fingers at Penn State, maybe we can get to work on examining the institutions in which we live and work, so that we don’t find ourselves in a position like Penn State.

  • Joe_Arnett

    “If we stop pointing our fingers at Penn State, maybe we can get to work on examining the institutions in which we live and work, so that we don’t find ourselves in a position like Penn State.”

    Thanks for your analysis.  When listening to the report on the news, I remarked to my wife, “I wonder how much of this goes on in lesser known organizations that we never hear about”!  It just points up the fact that we all need to be on guard.  It’s so easy to just say, “I don’t want to get involved”.  I grieve for Penn State.  It will be very difficult, but I hope they can face up to their problems move on.


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