Among the casualties of the Penn State sexual abuse coverup were the personal reputations of university officials, including the late football coach and sports icon Joe Paterno. Paterno, Spanier, Curley, Schultz and others will be forever linked to the efforts to minimize and conceal shocking crimes against children. (Who can forget the email in which Spanier calls the decision not to inform police a “humane” approach?)
But what about Penn State, the institution? Can it be redeemed? I was surprised to read many online comments, even in the wake of the Freeh report, that shrugged off the scandal and its impact on the school’s enrollment, alumni giving, and academic standing.
I’m not so sure. You can’t blame an entire university for what happened, but where Penn State lost the PR game, in my view, wasn’t just when its leadership failed to report and prevent crimes against children. That was a moral failing.
Where the university erred in PR terms was when news of the Grand Jury charges broke. It had an opportunity to get ahead of the story and at least be a part of the investigation, rather than the unwilling subject of it. The legal crisis had been in the making for three years, an eternity in issues management terms. Yet it wasn’t until the damage was done that the school tried to get control of the situation, and by then it was far too late.
So, what should the university do now? Here are some useful steps to consider:
New leadership. The school has a new president who seems committed to moving forward in a transparent way. But its housecleaning should go further, to the coaching staff and most importantly, the Board of Directors.
Open communications. The Freeh report was funded and commissioned by Penn State’s Board of Directors, which is a strong first step to communicating openly and letting the chips fall where they may. But the very fact of its funding wasn’t sufficiently communicated, in my view. PSU needs to redouble its efforts to show its commitment to getting at the truth.
Athletic program reform. Whether PSU football will be suspended is up to the NCAA, but it’s a fair question and one that should be seriously considered. I tend to agree with those who think a suspension would only serve to punish the innocent, but the program needs to be restructured, possibly by folding the athletic department into the university at large, along the lines of the Vanderbilt example.
Reparations. A “sudden death” suspension would have a real impact on the school and would show it’s serious about consequences, yet it doesn’t make amends. There will be civil damages paid to victims, but that’s reactive. The school needs to establish a formal program to compensate victims. Only a serious, long-term reparations program, along the lines of the BP fund or even the 9/11 victims’ fund, will demonstrate that PSU, as an institution and a community, is committed to never letting such a thing happen again.
Third parties. Penn State should bring on an independent third party to oversee claims resolution and, most importantly, to undertake a long-term education program like those run by The National Center For Missing and Exploited Children or Prevent Child Abuse America. Independence and moral authority are critical in any partner organization.
Money and sports. Arthur Caplan decries the “pernicious and corrupting influence of big time college sports” due to the huge sums of money they bring in, and he’s not alone.
The business of football and men’s basketball at many of our most visible universities is so huge — from the sale of sports paraphernalia, to TV and media rights, to gambling to stadiums filled with luxury boxes and corporate sponsors — that it is laughable to think that administration, legal staff or faculty would not think their primary duty is to protect those programs at any price.
Caplan makes a compelling case, but it’s not realistic to think that college sports – and the big dollars they generate – will go away any time soon. Better for Penn State to take smaller, but steady steps, towards reputation rehabilitation.