Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Penn State's Cultures of Silence: A View From Outside In and Inside Out

The Sandusky scandal has produced a number of distinct stories about Penn State.  For some, Sandusky represents the story of a predator that betrayed a trust; for others it is the story of administrative arrogance in the face of bad conduct by a protected inferior, for still others it is a story of managerial indifference.  Like an accordion, the reality of the Sandusky story can be expanded or contracted to suit the needs and objectives of the speaker.

(Pix of Frank Noonan, from Dennis Owen, State police head stands by criticism of Paterno, Penn State, ABC 27 News, July 3-4, 2012)

Each of these versions of the Sandusky story produces a different focus and reaction.  For some, it requires focus on education and training respecting pedophiles and the management of children on campus, for others it is an indictment of the cultures of administration, for still others it is a conformation of the collusion between administrators and boards.  For many, the trial and conviction of Mr. Sandusky, coupled with an emphasis on training in the management of children on campus is sufficient and that, now resolved, should permit Penn State to resume its pre scandal operations as if little has changed.  For Pennsylvania State Police Commissioner Frank Noonan, the problem runs both deeper and in another direction--in the cultivation of cultures of reprisal and silence that remains a troubling part of university life.  This is story related in a recent news story.  Dennis Owen, State police head stands by criticism of Paterno, Penn State, ABC 27 News, July 3-4, 2012.

This post considers that story and its implications for Penn State in general and the Penn State University Faculty Senate in particular. 

The mother of a victim reported abuse by Jerry Sandusky in a Penn State shower in 1998. Janitors claimed they saw the ex-coach in a shower with a boy in 2000, and Mike McQueary reported an incident in 2001.

Three reports in four years, yet nothing was done to stop a predator who, celebrity-like, was in a luxury box at a Penn State football game days before his arrest in November 2011.

"And he was in that shower room," said Pennsylvania State Police Commissioner Frank Noonan. "And had access to it for years and years and years after these events were reported. It is a concern. You're curious. Why did it happen?" (From  Dennis Owen, State police head stands by criticism of Paterno, Penn State, ABC 27 News, July 3-4, 2012)

So begins the story related by Mr. Noonan. Noonan answers his own question:
"They thought they would lose their jobs if they reported the crime, and that speaks to the culture that was present," Noonan said. "I wasn't always in law enforcement. I worked on a garbage truck at one point, but I've never had a job where I felt I couldn't speak up about child sex abuse. I don't understand that."
Leaked e-mails have surfaced implicating Penn State officials in a cover-up. They appear to point toward legendary late head football coach Joe Paterno. They are emails the AG's office didn't know existed until they were uncovered by investigator Louis Freeh, the former FBI director hired by the university for its own investigation. (Ibid.).
And Noonan suggests the problem runs deep within Penn State's culture.  "He says Penn State was less than cooperative with the investigation and gives one example of janitors scared to speak up after seeing Sandusky abusing a young boy in a shower." (Ibid.).

But this also suggests a culture of strategic and perhaps self serving leaks, which has also produced criticism. 
Gov. Tom Corbett confirmed Tuesday that Penn State's Board of Trustees was briefed on the existence of the emails, but he's not happy they've been haphazardly released.
"I don't like leaked information," Corbett said.
Corbett is in a unique position. Now the governor and a Penn State trustee, he was the attorney general when the investigation and also privy to insider information. (Ibid.).
Such a cultural problem necessarily generates suggestions for correction.  In the best of circumstances those corrections should be generated internally as an institution confronts its own failings.  But in this case the solutions may be imposed from above and drawn from outside the institution.
Corbett said what he learned about the school's culture as AG has given him some ideas about changes he would like to see now that he's a trustee, but he's not revealing details yet.
"I have ideas, but I'll share them with the Board first," he said. "I'll also wait on what comes out in the Freeh report."
While criticizing leaks and not yet offering specific cures for Penn State moving forward, Corbett did offer this: "You can't legislate behavior, and if you look at this issue much of this is behavior, behavior by Mister Sandusky and others."
These behaviors will presumably be revealed in coming months, both by Louis Freeh and the perjury trials of two Penn State officials. Corbett also reflected on his charge to Penn State trustees moments before they voted to fire Paterno and former president Graham Spanier in November, that they "must remember the children." 
And Noonan?  There is a return to culpability grounded in moral obligation.
Noonan said he was criticized for emotionally and loudly insisting last November that Paterno and other Penn State officials had a "moral obligation" to report suspected abuse to police. More calmly and with a smile on his face, he said he stands by his comments.
"When you have a problem, the correct response is to deal with the problem," Noonan said. "Get it over with, not to ignore it, not to hope it goes away, because the reputation of the institution is based on what you actually do in those situations, not what it appears to the outside."
The focus of this case has now clearly shifted from what one man did to what a major institution failed to do.
That last point ought to be quite troubling.  It is true enough that the Sandusky scandal has shifted its focus from what that individual did to what the institution failed to do.  Larry Catá Backer, Remarks on Assuming Duties as Chair of the PSU University Faculty Senate, The Faculty Voice, April 26, 2012. And indeed, the problems of cultures of silence is not limited to staff.  Faculty, like staff, sometimes feel with some justification, that they work in environments where they might imperil their jobs for speaking out.  This fear does not run from faculty to the highest levels of the administration--if only because there is not direct line of communication between a faculty member, for example, and senior officials.  That fear is more palpably felt in faculty conduct within departments, colleges, campuses and the like.  Cultures of reprisal are not unknown, at least anecdotally at Penn State.  It is for that reason that a University Faculty Senate Committee, working with administration and board, will work to produce a report on this issue.  IT is hoped that they will be able to suggest a set of changes to university policy that better protects faculty  in the exercise of their governance roles and their duty to "speak truth to power" without having their faculty support stripped or their raises withheld or their teaching schedules modified to their detriment.   


But it is true in equal measure that a turn toward moral obligation as a basis for legal conduct is a dangerously misguided and unfair approach to the resolution of this issue.  See Larry Catá Backer, Governance Through Morals, Ethics or Rules: Assessing Employee Conduct Against Legal and Moral Codes; an Emerging Standard Without a Rule of Law?, Law at the End of the Day, March , 2012.
It cannot be forgotten that morals may touch on issues of conscience--long protected in the United States against interference.  By contrast, ethical rules touch on good behavior within the community that is regarded as the essence of good governance.  When created in an open and transparent way in accordance with accepted procedures, ethical norms and rules can serve a useful purpose.  However, when they are constructed after the fact or hidden or reconstructed as a tool of "off the books" regulation, then they serve only as a perversion of its own ethics based nature. (Ibid.).

1 comment:

  1. This is a good start. However, might I suggest that you, as new Chair, make an appointment with Commissioner Noonan and personally speak with him about these matters, especially the assertion concerning the "uncooperative" attitude of University officials and others toward the efforts of law enforcement to properly investigate these matters. It would seem that you ought to get this information first-hand from Commissioner Noonan, and also then be able to inquire as to the identity of those persons to whom he is referring as being obstreperous. You will then be armed with the true facts, and can confidently go about helping the University rectify this culture of silence, denial and apparent cover up. Best of luck, and many thanks for your sterling efforts and courage!