Scandals and litigation can have a substantial effect on the operations of the modern university. The long running efforts of Penn State University to meet and mitigate the effects of the prosecution of a former athletic employee for various acts of gross sexual misconduct provides the model template for the early 21st century large university.As such, the lessons that ought to be drawn should be of importance to university administrators and shared governance partners throughout the nation.
There are a number of lessons that can be drawn:
1. Such disruptions can be long lasting. It is difficult to reduce the "life span" of such events, and the risk of substantial mistakes increases the more strenuously administrators seek to shorten this life span through retrospectively short sighted decisions.
2. Information about events of national and public concern are nearly impossible to control. The harder the university works to control the flow and manufacture of information for distribution internally or externally, the more likely that it will have detrimental effects on moral and on the position of the university. Individuals and organizations, including state officials are likely to draw negative inferences from especially ham handed efforts to control either information flows or discussion.
3. Preserving the illusion of control tends to create unintended consequences. It is an illusion to believe that scandals of this sort can be managed or controlled, especially by groups of senior administrators who do not have (given institutional cultures and the logic of their positions) a means of grasping rank and file sentiment. The harder the effort to stage manage thought, to socialize employees, or to limit expression, the more likely that division between senior administrators and rank and file will grow, and that mutual trust will dissipate. Ordinarily this is of little moment--but the consequences will be felt not in the context of the scandal but in virtually every other administrative program--from benefits reform to conflicts of interest and consulting initiatives. Trust, once lost, is hard to recover.
4. The university's failure to account transparently for its expenses and objectives in meeting the scandal will also contribute to a reduction of trust That reduction will focus on faculty and staff--who will view university efforts at cost reduction aimed solely at them much more suspiciously in the face of multiple millions of dollars spent to manage and deal with scandal related accountability issues. To them, such cost reductions appears to amount to a cram down of the expenses of the scandal form the university to faculty and staff. In effect, taken as a whole, university cost cutting in the face of a scandal tends to be understood as a faculty-staff subsidy of the costs of the scandal, a cost that appears to be passed through from the (rich) university to the (much less financially endowed) faculty and staff.5. That failure of transparency might well affect outside stakeholders as well--from the state in its budgeting processes, to alumni and local leaders who might also begin to worry about trust issues and the nature of their relation to the institution.6. There are always unanticipated surprises in the course of resolving major scandals. In the effort to produce accountability new and sometimes quite burdensome information may come to light that might well complicate efforts at scandal crisis resolution.
All university administrators must begin to better plan for and meet the likelihood of major crisis. This is a difficult task, and one for which the university community itself must be prepared to be forgiving and patient as events unfold. Still, there is a need to better prepare for protecting the university community and the functioning of the university as it seeks to deal--ethically, transparently and forthrightly--with scandal. That requires programs for both vigorous defense of false accusation and humble and forthright acceptance of responsibility. Indeed, Penn State's Values would appear to mandate these as the basic principles of the university's own operations. And in any case they ought to serve as a baseline against which administrator decision making and conduct generally ought to be judged.
Some of the implications of these insights may be discerned by a reading of the surprising and continuing events revolving around the horrible Sandusky related scandals. The first is a recent article from the Washington Post (Will Hobson and Cindy Boren, "New Court Documents Suggest Others at Penn State knew of Jerry Sandusky Abuse," Washington Post, July 12, 2016) which may be accessed HERE. The second is a message from the University President. These are presented without comment in keeping with the request of the Penn State President set forth below.
Statement from Penn State President Eric Barron related to anticipated unsealing of court documents
"Today, information is being released by the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas related to a lawsuit between Penn State and its insurer, Pennsylvania Manufacturers Association. For its part, the University does not plan to provide additional comment on these matters, as this information has largely already been covered by media.Penn State's overriding concern has been, and remains, for the victims of Jerry Sandusky. While individuals hold different opinions, and may draw different inferences from the testimony about former Penn State employees, speculation by Penn State is not useful. We must be sensitive to all individuals involved, and especially to those who may be victims of child sexual abuse. It also makes it much more difficult for Penn State to create an environment where victims of sexual abuse feel comfortable coming forward and where students, faculty and staff feel protected in reporting wrongdoing.Although settlements have been reached, it also is important to reiterate that the alleged knowledge of former Penn State employees is not proven, and should not be treated as such. Some individuals deny the claims, and others are unable to defend themselves.Speculation also serves to drive a wedge within the Penn State community. I would ask that we remember our University's primary mission is to focus on research, education and service. Let's be respectful of other viewpoints and focus on our mission. The University is committed to ensuring our campuses are safe for children, and to ongoing prevention and education programs and research that contribute to a better society.I want to thank our Penn State community for caring so deeply about not only our university during these difficult times, but also for the victims of child abuse."Eric J. Barron
Penn State President---
Penn State efforts focused on fighting child abuse, instituting best practicesPenn State efforts focused on fighting child abuse, instituting best practices In the past five years, Penn State has enacted a multitude of reforms focused on fighting child abuse, sexual misconduct, and unethical actions, and has introduced best practices in governance, management and compliance. For more information about our continued efforts, visit this list.This email was sent to you by the Penn State Office of the President, 201 Old Main, University Park, PA 16801