Karen Hitchcock - Penn State : Lessons Learned

Aug 2, 2012

The scandal which has engulfed Pennsylvania State University since last November most likely reflects the consequences of an institution trying to protect the reputation of its lucrative and immensely successful football program above all other considerations – even the safety of innocent young boys.  Mr. Jerry Sandusky, a former football coach at Penn State, has now been found guilty on 45 counts of molesting children, heinous acts of abuse that the university’s top leadership was apparently aware of.  In the words of the report recently released by an investigative team, commissioned by Penn State’s Board of Trustees and led by former FBI director, Louis J. Freeh, there was “…a decision to actively conceal” the abuse by the university’s top leadership.  For some 14 years, the till now universally venerated head football coach, the late Joe Paterno, along with the President and two other high level administrators -- in the words of the report -- “repeatedly concealed facts” surrounding Mr. Sandusky’s criminal activities.  And, they apparently chose to conceal the truth to avoid the bad publicity for the football program and the university they thought would result from such a disclosure…the abuse of the innocent was clearly not their priority.

In the wake of the Freeh report, the NCAA, the governing body for intercollegiate sports, issued massive penalties which will debilitate the Penn State football program for years to come. Their rationale?  Football had become the tail that wagged the dog at Penn State; and, because of a lack of leadership and oversight of the program, an environment had been created where such abuse was, at worst, enabled, at the very least, tolerated.

The same can be said for Penn State as a whole.  Ironically, then President Spanier’s  callous and misplaced concern for the reputation of the university above all else has led to the greatest damage to Penn State’s reputation in its history.  But, as the Freeh report clearly points out, others at the university -- especially, its governing board – must share some of the blame.   One of the major areas of responsibility for the leadership of any organization is protecting that organization from risk -- financial risk, certainly, but also reputational risk. The Board of Trustees at Penn State did not feel it necessary to provide the level of oversight required by any organization  --  public or private, university or large for-profit corporation  --  to ensure the integrity of both the organization’s procedures and practices as well as the image it presents to the public.   Clearly, the Board did not insist on a rigorous and ongoing program of risk management at Penn State.  They did not insist on regular reports by the university’s president to their committees on the variety of institutional risks which needed to be monitored by the university. Risk mitigation, unfortunately, as at many other institutions of higher education, was not a priority at Penn State.  In the words of the Freeh Report, the Board of Trustees, “failed to exercise its oversight and reasonable inquiry responsibilities.”  The results of such inattention were devastating.

Organizations – public or private – have the obligation to identify and manage ongoing major risks in such areas as mission, compliance, reputation, finance and operations.  They need to give ongoing attention to the mitigation of such risks in order to, yes, avoid costly civil liability suits but, more importantly, to protect the well-being of the members and assets of their organizations.  

The tragic shootings at Virginia Tech alerted all of us in higher education to another area of risk that needs to be monitored; that is, the critical need for effective, campus-wide alert systems.  In-depth reviews of institutional procedures/protocols are essential to ensure that all members of the university community -- faculty, students and staff -- are aware of their particular roles in such crisis situations.   This is the kind of risk management which should occur at all levels of an organization in an ongoing way, not simply in response to a situation receiving publicity at another institution.   Further, my own experience as a university president has sensitized me to the need, under certain circumstances, to reach outside the institution for a totally independent review of particular organizational protocols/procedures -- fiscal, crisis management, public relations, communications, etc.  Validation and/or suggestions arising out of such “third party” reviews have been reassuring to the leadership and members of organizations, to their Boards of Trustees and to the share holders of private corporations; and, they have greatly reduced the organization’s exposure to civil litigation and reputational risk.

Be it the tragedy at Virginia Tech, or the crimes against the innocent concealed and, hence, enabled for so long at Penn State or, perhaps, even at the University of Colorado as we learn more about its knowledge regarding the situation at Aurora, our first reaction is one of outrage and deepest sympathy for those victimized and those lost to us.  But, let these tragedies also be a clarion call to develop rigorous risk management programs which can better alert us to, and help us mitigate against, the kinds of threats which will, unfortunately, always face our institutions, and to develop ways to deal with the crisis situations such threats can create.

Dr. Karen Hitchcock, Special Advisor in the consulting firm, Park Strategies, LLC, was President of the University at Albany, State University of New York, from 1996-2004, after which she went on to lead Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. Dr. Hitchcock has received honorary degrees from Albany Medical College and from her alma mater, St. Lawrence University. She has served  on numerous regional and national committees and task forces dealing with issues in higher education, research and economic development. While at both the University at Albany and Queen’s University, she co-hosted the popular WAMC program, “The Best of our Knowledge”.

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