For Penn State's Leaders, an Indictment of Malfeasance

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

July 12, 2012

The much-awaited report on the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Pennsylvania State University, conducted by the independent counsel Louis J. Freeh, has finally been released. I had been preparing for this day ever since November 11, 2011, when Penn State's Board of Trustees announced its convening of a Special Investigations Task Force to deal with the fallout from the indictment of Sandusky, a former assistant football coach, on 48 charges of child sexual abuse and misconduct.

The charges against a beloved member of the Penn State community, along with the indictments of two senior officials of the university for perjury and failure to report child abuse, shocked the world of higher education. The subsequent conviction of Sandusky on 45 of those charges, in June, brought one aspect of the case to a close.

I had been a faculty member and administrator at Penn State for 10 years, before leaving for my current position six months ago. Upon arriving at Michigan State University and meeting new colleagues, the most common question I faced was, "Where were you before coming here?" Upon answering, I would generally get a comment along the lines of, "Oh, I bet you must be happy to be out of there!"

I always responded first with the explanation that I had accepted the job at Michigan State the previous June, months before the Sandusky indictments were announced, as I did not want anyone to think that I left Penn State because of what had happened there. Then I would explain politely that while I was very happy to be in my new position, I harbored no joy in having left Penn State in the midst of the trouble it was facing.

I said this to people because it was the truth. I was saddened by what had occurred at Penn State, not just because of the awful allegations against Sandusky and what they meant—if proven true, as they later were—for those poor young boys. I was also dismayed, and even hurt, by the sense that I and others had been betrayed by the leadership of the institution, a leadership that I had held in great regard. The fact that I had left the university did not lessen those feelings. I left behind good colleagues and friends, members of the Penn State and State College communities, who were going to be dealing with the fallout firsthand.

Now that we have the investigative report, at 267 pages, it is time to try to understand what occurred at Penn State to enable Sandusky's longtime criminal behavior. I know "enable" is a strong word, but it is hard not to use strong language after reading the report.

I tried to keep in mind that the report is not a product of the criminal-justice system, in which those accused of crimes are given the opportunity to respond and mount a defense. Nonetheless, it includes a good deal of documentary evidence, much of it in the form of contemporaneous e-mails and meeting notes written by senior leaders of the university. And that evidence paints a very distressing picture of a failure of leadership.

The sentences that sum up for me the key finding of the report are in the executive summary: "The most saddening finding by the Special Investigative Counsel is the total and consistent disregard by the most senior leaders at Penn State for the safety and welfare of Sandusky's child victims. ... Four of the most powerful people at the Pennsylvania State University—President Graham B. Spanier, Senior Vice President-Finance and Business Gary C. Schultz, Athletic Director Timothy M. Curley, and Head Football Coach Joseph V. Paterno—failed to protect against a child sexual predator harming children for over a decade."

Some of those people are individuals for whom I had a great deal of respect and, in some cases, had worked with and gotten to know well. I had felt that Penn State was a well-managed institution, one where the leaders had good relationships with many key groups, including faculty, students, alumni, and members of the community.

Even with my concerns regarding special treatment that the football program may have received in the university, I still felt that Penn State was "better" than most other large universities. So to discover this terrible secret, the knowledge that senior officials knew about Sandusky's behavior and actions in at least two incidents, is enormously disheartening.

It is also difficult to believe that things would have played out the same way if the perpetrator had been a faculty member, or a staff member, and not a member of the storied football program.

In reading the Freeh report's articulation of the 1998 incident, when the four men I mentioned were made aware of the investigation conducted by the Penn State police, it is almost possible to understand their actions. After all, an investigation was conducted that involved not just the Penn State police, but also the State College police, the local district attorney's office, and the state's department of public welfare. The investigation concluded without any finding that a crime may have been committed.

But the report goes on to detail the 2001 incident, in which the graduate assistant Mike McQueary told Paterno, Curley, and Schultz that he had seen Sandusky in a locker-room shower with a boy late at night, and that he saw something "extremely sexual" and "thought that some kind of intercourse was going on." According to the Freeh investigators, not one of the men reported the incident to the authorities or asked for an investigation by the Penn State police. And, perhaps in what may have been the greatest dereliction of their duties, they evidently did not even try to determine the name of the child involved, in order to follow up and see if he had been harmed.

Think about the subsequent victims of Sandusky's attacks, and about how their lives might have been different if those officials had stepped forward and done the right thing.

Sometimes good people make bad decisions. But this situation goes well beyond that tired observation. The Freeh report is nothing less than an indictment of malfeasance on the part of the leadership of the university, including the Board of Trustees. The board is portrayed as providing inadequate oversight of the administration, being overly deferential to the president and his decisions of what to bring before the board, and unwilling or unable to ask the difficult questions necessary to ensure that the university, its reputation, its assets, and the broader community were protected.

It is difficult to determine whether what happened at Penn State could have happened at another institution; every college and university is different, with its own culture, its own management structure, its own individual characteristics. There are certainly some characteristics of Penn State, however, that I believe did contribute to the way the events played out.

The nature of the Board of Trustees, which in many respects operates more like that of a private institution than like that of a public university, can be seen as a contributing factor. Many positions on the board are self-perpetuating, and the university administration has major influence over the selection of trustees. Penn State's legal status as a state-related university in Pennsylvania also shields it from a level of transparency, such as through open-records requests, to which most other public universities must adhere.

It is also possible to point to the rural and isolated nature of Penn State and its hometown as a contributing factor. State College is a small community, and the university dominates it physically, economically, and socially. It is hardly an environment that welcomes debate and criticism of the largest employer and most visible presence. This, too, may have influenced the course of events.

But ultimately, it is individuals who bear responsibility, regardless of other factors.

In the news release accompanying the report, Freeh said, "Penn State University is an outstanding educational institution, which is rightly proud of its students, alumni, faculty and staff, who, in turn, hold the institution in very high esteem." He is absolutely right in that assessment. But the challenge for the board, and for the new leadership of the university, is to put into force the recommendations of the Freeh report to ensure that the horrors visited upon the institution, the victims, and the community by Jerry Sandusky and those who sought to protect him will never be repeated.

Donald E. Heller is dean of the College of Education at Michigan State University and a former director of Pennsylvania State University's Center for the Study of Higher Education.