Leadership & Governance

An Insular Penn State Stayed Silent

November 10, 2011

Every major player in a sexual-assault scandal that has rocked Pennsylvania State University this week had reason to be trusted. In the end, that may have been part of the problem.

As described in a grand-jury report made public Friday, long-serving Penn State administrators declined to contact authorities when they were told a former football coach, whom they had known for decades, had sexually assaulted a young boy on campus. In every step of a reporting chain that ultimately stopped short of reaching proper state agencies or law-enforcement officials, there were loyal Penn State men, many of whom had spent most or all of their careers working together in Happy Valley.

Penn State Scandal: Read Complete Chronicle Coverage

Penn State is a major research university in a small town, where people tend to put down roots and build families. So if a person is accused of wrongdoing in State College, chances are they have a familiar and trusted face. That culture, some professors and observers say, may have influenced administrators who saw no need to involve police when Jerry Sandusky, an accomplished former football coach, was seen sexually assaulting a young boy in a locker room, according to the grand-jury report.

R. Scott Kretchmar, who was Penn State's NCAA faculty representative from 2000 to 2010, likened the university's "tragic" response to that of a family concerned for one of its own.

"There is a greater tendency to forgive, give a second chance, protect the reputation of the family. At a very human level, we do that with our biological families," said Mr. Kretchmar, a professor of exercise and sport science. "We don't want to see anyone in the family hurt. Penn State has been a tight-knit family, and in some ways that might have hurt us in this situation."

In a news conference earlier this week, Frank Noonan, the state police commissioner, blamed the "culture" at Penn State for doing "nothing to stop or prevent" children from being harmed. Central to that contention is the charge that Timothy M. Curley, the college's athletic director, and Gary C. Schultz, interim senior vice president for finance and business, unlawfully failed to report suspected child abuse and perjured themselves before the grand jury.

Both administrators have denied wrongdoing.

Strong ties developed over many years to bolster the Penn State family unit. Of the four men who have stepped aside or been fired in connection with the arrest of Mr. Sandusky, all have had longer-than-average tenures in their positions. They include Joe Paterno, the legendary Nittany Lions coach of 46 years; Graham B. Spanier, the college's president for 16 years; Mr. Curley, the longtime athletic director who built his career at Penn State; and Mr. Schultz, who over a span of 40 years worked his way up from student to a senior administrator.

And then there was Mr. Sandusky himself. His relationship with the university began as a football player, extending through 32 years as a coach. By the time he retired in 1999, he was regarded as a legendary architect of Penn State's aggressive linebacker squad. Up until the scandal broke, there was even a flavor named for him at a local ice cream shop. But Berkey Creamery's "Sandusky Blitz" recently disappeared from the menu.

Far from outliers, the central players in the Sandusky scandal represent the norm in terms of years of service at Penn State, a Chronicle analysis has found. Of the 18 members of Penn State's President's Council, which comprises the central administration, 10 have been associated with the university for more than 15 years. The insularity of the group is further reflected in the education of the administrators, at least seven of whom have degrees from Penn State or have completed coursework there, according to available biographies on the university's Web site. Moreover, nearly all of the university's senior athletic officials are alumni who have spent the bulk of their careers at State College.

The men taking over Mr. Spanier's and Mr. Paterno's positions are also longtime insiders. Rodney A. Erickson, who was named interim president effective immediately Wednesday night, first joined Penn State's faculty in 1977, and he has served as provost for a dozen years. Tom Bradley, who was named interim football coach, has been on staff at Penn State for 33 years, and his time at the university dates back to his days as a Nittany Lions football player in the late 1970s.

"There certainly has been criticism that Penn State can be a kind of old-boys network," said Donald E. Heller, a professor of education and a senior scientist at Penn State's Center for the Study of Higher Education. "People have been at Penn State for a long time. You see each other at church or at the grocery store or at the movie theater, and that can feed into an insular community."

Shortly after the scandal became public, Mr. Spanier made a clear association between longevity and innocence. In a widely criticized initial statement about the investigation, the then-president pledged his "unconditional support" for Mr. Curley and Mr. Schultz, centrally because he had known them for so long to be men of integrity.

The Penn State story, however, may be an illustration that past performance is not always an indicator of future success, said Sheldon E. Steinbach, a Washington lawyer and former vice president and general counsel for the American Council on Education.

"You tend to think that people who have been with you and who have served you well are doing and will continue to do the right thing because they've done the right thing for years," said Mr. Steinbach, senior counsel in Dow Lohnes's postsecondary-education practice. "The problem may arise, as it seems to have here, when people make mistakes."

It was longtime Penn State law-enforcement officers who were first confronted with red flags about Mr. Sandusky. In 1998, when an 11-year-old boy's mother reported to Penn State police that her son had showered with Mr. Sandusky in a locker room on campus, the lead detective and campus police director involved had each served the university for more than a quarter century.

The Centre County District attorney decided against filing charges against Mr. Sandusky, even though he admitted to inappropriately showering naked with the child, the report states. According to the grand jury report, the investigation ended with Mr. Sandusky's assurance that he would not shower with children again. That was a promise that Mr. Sandusky is alleged to have failed to keep. In 2002, a graduate student reported that he saw Mr. Sandusky sexually assault a boy in a locker-room shower on campus. Mr. Sandusky lost his locker-room privileges thereafter, but no one informed of the allegations bothered to find out who the boy might have been, the report states.

Strong Ties, Long Tenures in Sports

The Penn State athletic department, too, has its share of loyalists.

Mr. Curley, who went on administrative leave from his athletic-director post on Sunday, is a native of State College whose family connections to Penn State run deep. He grew up across the street from the New Beaver Field, graduated from the university in 1976, and worked his way up the ranks to become athletic director in 1993. Mr. Curley's father directed the university's food service program, and a brother is the university's budget officer.

Over the years, Mr. Curley surrounded himself with other Penn State alums. Of the seven top administrators who make up Mr. Curley's cabinet, all but one—Charmelle Green, an associate athletic director who arrived this year from Notre Dame—are alumni. Their median length of service at the university is 21 years; one, Fran Ganter, the associate athletic director for football, spent 37 years at Penn State as a football player and coach before assuming his current post four years ago.

Similar patterns exist among the 10-man football coaching staff. The top two assistants, Dick Anderson and Tom Bradley, have coached in Happy Valley for a combined 67 years. Both are graduates of the university, and both also competed there. In all, the football program's assistant coaches have served a median of 16 years.

"They're rather insular and internally focused," says Todd Turner, who served as athletic director at four Division I universities and now runs a consulting firm that does searches for athletic departments.

The internal focus at Penn State can also be seen in its approach to hiring high-level administrators. While most universities of comparable size and complexity routinely use search firms to aid in executive recruitment efforts, Penn State is notable for its reluctance to use national headhunters.

Yet Penn State is not alone in its habit of grooming graduates—or luring them back—for athletics jobs. College sports has plenty of examples of storied programs led by alumni: At Auburn University, for instance, the athletic director, Jay Jacobs, grew up 20 miles away, played football there, earned two degrees from the university in the 1980s, became a graduate assistant coach, and worked his way up. The University of North Carolina's departing athletic director, Dick Baddour, is a Tar Heel alum and has been in Chapel Hill for 45 years; the University of Nebraska's Tom Osborne earned three degrees from the university, coached football in Lincoln for 30 years, and has been athletic director since 2007.

But many other elite programs follow a far different model, hiring athletic directors and senior staff who've cut their teeth at several institutions, sometimes starting out at their alma maters in an entry-level position but making stops at several places as they ascend the coaching or administrative ranks. It's not unusual now for athletic directors, in particular, to chart a cross-country career path.

Mr. Turner says even though that approach brings fresh ideas to an athletic department, it often causes some heartburn for boosters intent on having a homegrown athletic director. "If you're hiring a coach or athletic director, there's a lot of emotion involved. There's a lot of, 'How could you possibly love this place like we do if you're coming from our rival or you're coming from a different conference? You don't get it,'" Mr. Turner says. "The fact of the matter is, they probably bring a much broader perspective than someone from within."

But those within Penn State tend to stay there, said Ronald A. Smith, professor emeritus of sports history and author of Pay for Play: A History of Big-Time College Athletic Reform (University of Illinois Press, 2011).

"I'm not surprised Penn State has a tendency to cover things up," he said. "We almost never fire anybody here. We just change their job descriptions."