Time to Step Back: The Future of Penn State

A worker sweeps the tunnel leading to the field at Beaver Stadium before the Penn State football team's annual college footba
A worker sweeps the tunnel leading to the field at Beaver Stadium before the Penn State football team's annual college football media day in State College, Pa., Thursday, Aug. 9, 2012. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Much has been written lately about Penn State. The crimes committed are horrific and egregious, the administration was arrogant, insular and imperial, and some of the alumni are apologists. A beloved university that defines who they are and what they have become in life has humiliated others. There is no sufficient explanation for the crime, the way it was handled, or the impact that it will have on Penn State's athletic reputation. The media feeding frenzy will undoubtedly continue as the case and its aftermath play out in the court of public opinion on the global stage. There is no escaping what will happen nor in many respects should there be. In short, it is what it is.

Yet at the center of the maelstrom is the reputation of Penn State as a distinguished global university. The future of an iconic American institution as an educational enterprise is hanging in the balance. In divining that future, certain admissions must be made. There must be an acknowledgment that there were victims who come first. Second, the once-storied football program has become an albatross around the neck of Penn State, at least for the moment. The NCAA has already placed the program into mid-term receivership. And finally, the reputation of the university has been badly sullied. There is no marketing and communications strategy that can restore what only time can fix. If this analysis is correct, then the game to watch over the long term is how Penn State repairs itself, focuses its energy, and banks its future on the quality of its academic programs.

Three steps must occur if Penn State is to become a better place. The first is that there must be pragmatic and incisive leaders in touch with constituencies of faculty, students, staff, parents, alumni, donors, friends, and -- yes -- detractors. The new leaders must intuitively "get it" and understand how to translate by language and deed the best intentions of the university to remain strong academically. They must separate the reputation of the university from that of its football debacle. These leaders must reemphasize and, where necessary, rebuild the reputation of Penn State as an academic powerhouse, economic engine, and innovative global thought partner. Despite all the bad things that have happened, Penn State has an international reputation for the quality of its educational programs that must be protected. The new university administration must not let its athletic moral, ethical and economic collapse spill over into academics. They must show by actions taken that Penn State is a complex, vibrant global university first. The words and even body language of both the new university president, Rodney Erickson, and board chair, Karen Peetz, suggest that they understand this point. In their first days, both deserve credit for their efforts to apply common sense to what they face.

The second step is to reform the policies, procedures, protocol and membership of the university's board of trustees. What the majority of the board did not know is stunning. Yet what is even more surprising is the weakness in the committee structure, reporting lines, and presentation of objective metrics, which had they been in place, would have called the question. Equally surprising was their failure to regularly assess the culture of Penn State at every level. Great universities are often insufferably insular and those in rural locations can be so isolated that they become parochial in their attitudes and response. The board at Penn State must fix the technical problem in board structure but then turn quickly to the larger issue of who they are as a university community and who they wish to become. It's not necessary to throw the baby out with the bath water but finding the common ground in the traditions, culture and history that make the cry of "We are Penn State" more meaningful will depend on transparent dialogue that must happen soon. Once again, the early signs emerging from the new leadership indicate that they understand this issue. Indeed, their legacy will depend on it.

Finally, as Penn State moves forward, the new leadership will make mistakes and not everyone will be happy. That's ok. The university is too large to be run as a New England town meeting. The lines of communication must be opened wide, however, to support best practices in shared governance among the board, administration and faculty. Decisions must be informed, clear, crisp, decisive and broadly communicated. Most important perhaps is that friends and detractors alike must take a step back when judging the university's future direction. As new leadership emerges, they need room to breathe and a chance to succeed. While we watch with horror, anger and dismay the descriptions of the past and the finger pointing that has now begun -- and remember that the victims come first -- we can still root for Penn State, its future, and the continuation of its iconic role in American life. It's just that we are less likely to be doing so at Beaver Stadium on a Saturday afternoon. It may be though that we can point with even greater pride soon to what the university has become.