Lessons Squandered From Penn State Case?

Might the conviction of Graham Spanier send a warning signal, asks Karen Gross, or at least a warning reminder, through ivory towers across our nation?

March 30, 2017
 
 
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The recent news cycle has been dominated by the defeat of the Republican health-care bill and possible Russian meddling in the presidential election. We can spin those events in many directions, identifying what they mean for the U.S. president, for the Republican and Democratic parties, and for the nation. Much ink has been spilled over those issues, and debate continues to rule the networks and social media outlets.

Meanwhile, the former president of Pennsylvania State University, Graham Spanier, was convicted of a misdemeanor that carries a potential five-year prison term for failing to protect children who were molested by one of his employees. Let me say it again: a former college president was convicted of child endangerment.

One would think that this latter event would generate a myriad of comments and thoughts across the nation from other college presidents, from advocates for the protections needed for children, from those involved in collegiate sports, from victims of child abuse. To me, the silence has been deafening and even a tad shocking.

Of course, the Penn State debacle with Jerry Sandusky is old news; the main events (the leaks and convictions) were more than four years ago. But this is March Madness time, and we are paying attention to collegiate athletics (albeit not football).

How can we get the Spanier conviction to change our behavior? Where are other college presidents who might have something to say about a former peer being convicted? Might this send a warning signal -- or, at least a warning reminder -- through ivory towers across our nation?

Seems not.

I get that Spanier was not convicted on more serious felony charges. I get that he is appealing that conviction. Who wouldn’t? That’s all fine and dandy. But right now we need to be talking about what this incident teaches all of us about how to lead and what is and is not acceptable on our campuses. It’s a cautionary tale that needs to be told and retold about not only a famous coach and a famous athletic program but also a university leader’s obligations to turn in wrongdoers who are abusing children.

To that end, here are five concrete (albeit difficult to implement) leadership suggestions, hopefully not squandered due to the lack of attention being paid to the Spanier conviction.

First, leaders of colleges and universities would be wise to have their athletics director report directly to them and then meet with that person regularly -- as in every week or two. Really. For the record, this is also the National Collegiate Athletic Association recommendation and has been one for decades. While I often disagree with NCAA officials, as a former president myself, I have tried different reporting structures, and on this, the NCAA is spot-on. Institutional leaders also need to ask the tough questions of the AD -- questions about the student-athletes’ GPAs and their coaches’ activities, such as coaches’ community service, speaking engagements and off-campus athletic activities. It is the latter that started all the problems -- civic engagement gone awry.

Second, presidents need to meet and greet all the head and assistant coaches at least once a year to set forth how the institution plans to operate and why staying clear of the proverbial edge is not only wise and safe but also necessary. And in having those talks, presidents must look coaches in the eyes -- literally. They must highlight the many scandals that have taken down coaches, and not just at Penn State. The president also needs to address the “this happens to others, not to us” mentality, reminding everyone that it can indeed “happen here.” Consider asking coaches to read one of the books describing a campus scandal and be prepared to discuss it -- like Cheated.

Third, leaders need to keep their ears to the ground for rumors -- yes, rumors. If you listen well as a president and have colleagues that have their ears open for you (something that cannot be underestimated and often serves as an indicator of loyalty as opposed to sycophantism), you’ll find that some of those rumors have kernels of truth buried (often not so deep) within them. And the old adage “when there’s smoke, there’s fire” is a good cautionary reminder.

Fourth, the president needs to create a culture of transparency such that people on the campus are willing to come forward and blow the whistle, something extraordinarily difficult to do. Whistle-blowing has serious consequences for the whistle-blower, including the risk of being fired and the loss of future employment. Just look at the data on that latter point.

But on our campuses, the president can be the last person to know what is happening even though other people -- students, faculty members and staff members -- know. People are so concerned about pleasing the president that they fail to share all that matters. As with sexual harassment, while sweeping things under the rug may seem easier, the longer-term consequences are often severe. Again, think Penn State and Graham Spanier.

Fifth and finally, college presidents need to say more than “the buck stops here.” They need to own what happens on their campuses -- the good, the bad and the ugly. There is a rich literature on how owning wrongs actually leads to less litigation -- something seen in medicine and malpractice suits, for example. To cite just one example of how a college president did that in an effective manner, consider how John J. DeGioia, president of Georgetown University, handled the fact that his institution both owned and sold slaves. He turned bad yet true facts into a compelling story of repentance, taking action and moving forward.

Presidents are understandably concerned about coming forth in such a manner -- fearing bad publicity, dwindling support from alumni and other donors, loss of sports revenue, and many other horrible outcomes. But look at it this way: any of these identified horribles is way less offensive, risky and damaging than what happened to Graham Spanier. He’s a convict now. The scandal enveloped his institution and has already cost millions.

Ponder this hypothetical world: What if, way back when, Penn State and its personnel had not shielded and enabled Jerry Sandusky? What if folks within the Penn State community had put a stop to the suspected conduct? Yes, 20-20 hindsight is always good, but this situation begs for us to do more than simply remark on the what-ifs. It begs for us to keep our proverbial eyes and ears open -- and to behave differently.

Bio

Karen Gross is a former college president and senior policy adviser at the U.S. Department of Education. Currently, she is senior counsel at Finn Partners and the author of both adult and children’s books. Her newest book, Breakaway Learners, is forthcoming next month from Columbia Teachers College Press.

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