A Shadow Across the Soul of the University

FILE - In this March 7, 2007, file photo, Penn State University president Graham Spanier speaks during a news conference at t
FILE - In this March 7, 2007, file photo, Penn State University president Graham Spanier speaks during a news conference at the Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center in Hershey, Pa. Former FBI agent Louis Freeh, who led a Penn State-funded investigation into the university's handling of molestation allegations against former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, is scheduled to release his highly anticipated report Thursday, July 12, 2012. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)

I met a traveller from an antique land

Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,

Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown

And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.

And on the pedestal these words appear:

`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:

Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,

The lone and level sands stretch far away."

(Percy Bysshe Shelley, Ozymandias)

Seems like Shelley's traveller took a detour through Happy Valley. The shards of Graham Spanier's shattered presidency at Penn State litter the collegiate landscape. Yes, he is innocent until proven guilty, but the damage is done. He allegedly failed to stop Jerry Sandusky when he had the power do to so, and the knowledge about what was going on. The evidence detailed in the Pennsylvania grand jury presentment appears damning. The charges are appalling; the abuse of children is horrifying, the cover-up outrageous.

Nobody takes a college presidency expecting to wind up indicted, let alone accused of failing to protect children from sex abuse. The ruination of Spanier's once-hailed presidency is a chilling morality tale for the rest of us who dare to take responsibility for leading a university community.

I've been a college president for 24 years, and in that span of time I've come to know many amazingly dedicated and selfless leaders, a few remarkably incompetent managers, and more than a fair share of prickly egos whose out-sized lifestyles betray the real idea of the university. The near-deification of the university presidency in some places is a big part of the problem that not only led to the catastrophe at Penn State, but that also contributes to the myriad fractures in the facade of higher education today.

Treating the college president as a minor potentate is dangerous, but the illusion is pervasive and often carefully cultivated starting with the search process that treats finding the president as something akin to the Holy Grail. Then comes the contract negotiations with much attention to lavish perks --- houses, drivers, chefs, club memberships, the list goes on. But it doesn't stop there. The presidential inauguration, a grand medieval festival with presidential medallions and colorful costumes and even a mace, helps to ensure that the president's ego is sufficiently inflated to carry him or her through the challenging months and years to come.

Sensible people becoming college presidents can stay grounded even with all of that hoopla (and some of us chose to skip the hoopla years ago), but along come other, more insidious influences that can easily corrupt a once-thoughtful leader. A university is a place that does play by different rules, whose culture is heavily weighted in favor of individual autonomy and the careful cultivation of minor fiefdoms with their own rules and languages and customs, such as the athletics programs.

There's a somewhat small corporate culture in the university that the governing board is more likely to see, and against which the faculty may rail from time to time. But the more dominant culture is one of often fiercely-protected departments acting like private clubs and related interest groups. I've come to call this the "kiosks at the airport" syndrome in which many university departments act as quasi-independent entities, rejecting any notion of a more common university-wide interest other than finding convenient parking. Not only faculty, but even mid-level managers dismiss any effort at senior management oversight as the dreaded "micromanagement," which seems to be one of the worst offenses in the litany of executive sins.

The last thing a president wants to be accused of is micromanagement. Heavens! What could be worse?

Child abuse. Covering-up child abuse. Protecting the people who commit and cover-up child abuse.

When the Sandusky case first broke open in November 2011, it appeared that Spanier's worst offense was aloofness, a willful disengagement from the details. Good presidents, as some academic management theory would have it, don't need to know what goes on in the locker room. We have people for that.

If the evidence in the grand jury presentment is accurate, however, President Spanier allegedly did engage in selective micromanagement. He allegedly knew what was going on in the locker room, and he very personally and specifically approved the plan to cover it up.

All of this is in the grand jury presentment. In February 2001, Athletic Director Tim Curley wrote an email to Vice President Gary Schultz and Graham Spanier in which he retreated from reporting Sandusky's possible rape of a child to the Department of Welfare "after talking it over with Joe [Paterno] yesterday..." Instead, he wanted to talk directly to Sandusky. Spanier writes that Curley's approach is "acceptable" and "humane." His message does indicate awareness of potential future trouble: "The only downside for us is if the message isn't 'heard' and acted upon, and we then become vulnerable for not having reported it. But that can be assessed down the road."

Spanier now has a lot of time to assess how he could have been so wrong. He did not have the courage to stand up to Joe Paterno, that's clear, nor to his own deputies. He agreed to a "humane" solution for Jerry Sandusky but made no inquiry into justice for the children who were Sandusky's victims. Had he used a modicum of his considerable power to overrule Curley and direct him to call the police immediately, he could have saved countless other victims, the shame and damage to Penn State, and the tragedy of his own shattered end as a president.

College presidents need to have the guts to hold everyone on campus accountable, at minimum, for the highest ethical conduct and obeying the law, and to make it clear to all managers that holding people accountable is not micromanagement -- or if it is, so what?

University presidents cannot be afraid to exercise their considerable authority to insist that every department, including athletics, must follow the same rules when it comes to upholding and respecting human dignity -- whether the protection of children or the campus climate for women or hazing or fraternities that still think blackface is funny.

The real soul of a university resides in its ethical reverence for human life and dignity in all university endeavors. We have rules to protect human subject research, academic freedom and free expression, faculty on their way to promotion and tenure, students accused of misconduct, staff needing medical leave, people expecting freedom from harassment and abuse of all kinds. These rules bespeak our values, manifesting our idealistic goal to shape the best possible human community on our campus.

A president has many responsibilities but none so important as the stewardship of the climate for ethics and respect for human dignity without which the university loses its soul, becoming a mere shell for self-interested transactions among various interest groups.

The scandal at Penn State is a shadow across the soul of the university, a bitter reminder that the president who fails to confront corruption will ultimately fail completely, taking down countless other people as he crashes into thousands of shards and clouds of dust.