Karen Hitchcock - Penn State: Lessons Not Learned

Oct 11, 2012

On Tuesday of this week, Jerry Sandusky received a de facto life sentence of 30-60 years for raping, abusing and assaulting some ten young boys.   To this day, Mr. Sandusky denies his guilt and places the blame for his conviction on what he feels is the false testimony of his many victims.  As The New York Times stated in an editorial following the sentencing, “The case of Jerry Sandusky for the serial raping of young boys while a coach in Penn State’s football program ended Tuesday as it began: in denial and delusion.”

While Mr. Sandusky’s unremitting denials might simply be explained as the desperate pleading of a convicted felon about to face the consequences of his criminal and despicable acts, some of the recent statements attributed to the leadership of Penn State are more difficult to comprehend.   In its editorial, The Times reported on a recent meeting which they had with the Chair of the Penn State Board, Karen Peetz, and Rodney Erickson, President of Penn State. While certainly acknowledging the “seriousness of the crimes” and the “catastrophic failures of management and leadership that were revealed “and, I might add, clearly spelled out by the investigative team commissioned by the Penn State Board of Trustees and headed by Louis J. Freeh, a former FBI Director, The Times editorial stated that President Erickson and Board Chair Peetz  “…denied the obvious truth that football had been too dominant in Penn State’s culture, with terrible consequences.”  Further, The Times reported that when “asked about lessons Penn State has learned, Mr. Erickson said that ‘bad things can happen in good places’ and child abuse happens everywhere.”   I was taken aback by the flippancy of these responses and agree with The Times when they went on to say that while what Mr. Erickson says “is true,” –  certainly bad things can happen in good places and, yes, child abuse happens everywhere -   [what he said] has little relevance for Penn State.” Indeed, such remarks show a startling lack of insight and certainly do not reflect any productive analysis by Penn State as to what it might have done differently to minimize the extent of Sandusky’s criminal acts.  

While one can never know with certainty the motivation of another’s actions, or lack thereof, it is widely accepted that Penn State’s leaders chose to protect the reputation of the university and its highly-regarded football program over all other considerations – even the safety of innocent young boys.  In the words of the Freeh Report, there was “….a decision [by Penn State leaders] to actively conceal” Sandusky’s abusive acts, apparently to avoid the bad publicity for the football program and university they thought would result from such a disclosure.  The result: an environment was created where sexual abuse was, at worst enabled, at the very least, tolerated. And yet, if it is true – as reported by The Times, that Penn State’s current President and Board Chair deny the very real possibility that the culture surrounding all things “football” at Penn State might have played a major role in how the institution responded to the repeated allegations of sexual abuse by Jerry Sandusky over the years, such a denial puts at risk the development of any truly effective, long-term solutions.

Freeh, as reported by CBS News “challenged the Trustees to look at the culture of the university.”   And I fervently hope that they do so. Addressing many of the over 100 suggestions in the Freeh Report for improvements in such areas as governance, risk management and compliance will be relatively straightforward.   However, addressing an institutional culture which allowed individuals to rationalize the concealment of the facts, and  deny the seriousness of the situation will be much more difficult.  
Indeed, getting at the root cause of Penn State’s failure to deal with the criminal acts of Jerry Sandusky in a way which would have limited the harm to innocent young boys will require, first and foremost, an acknowledgement by the university and its leaders of the role the institutional culture actually played, coupled with an acknowledgement – and acceptance -- of the significant efforts which will be required of the entire institution to actually transform that culture.

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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