Power, Presidents, and the Lessons of Penn State

Perhaps it is when presidents -- and Boards -- stop asking questions, stop worrying about where the line of disclosure is and what side they're standing on, that evils like the situation at Penn State arise.
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When I reflect on my three presidencies, all at colleges and universities very different than Penn State -- none with a football team -- I wonder if I could have kept a scandal as sordid and unsavory as Jerry Sandusky under wraps.

I conclude that I could not. (And, of course, would not.)

But even after reading the litany of horrors that is the Freeh report (you can almost smell the sulfur), I can readily understand how it might happen.

The line between how much it is necessary or essential to reveal to a Board, and when the revelation would be irrelevant or counterproductive, isn't crisp. As president thrice over, I have always felt that I should weigh the desire for transparency with the wish not to burden the busy Board members with administrivia. There's always the rule to follow that the Board should never be surprised if they discover something that they didn't know. But there's much I deal with as a CEO that doesn't seem useful for them to know.

Keeping a wary eye within this aspect of the Board-President partnership is the lesson of Penn State.

Rarely will we see the high drama of this horrific situation -- even less likely in the future as other institutions learn their lesson from the mess at Penn State. But there will always be lurking in the background the balance keeping: need to know, or not?

How does a president make that decision?

For my current Board and myself that is the lesson we must learn from Penn State. What comes around to smack us upside the head will not be a colossal and nasty sexual abuse scandal, I suspect. It likely would be something much more mundane, much more subtle, and far less likely to cause the pain and distress and damage of the Penn State calamity, but nevertheless a distressing perturbation to the system. Our vigilance will be based on honest communication and the values of the humanistic worldview that is part of our institutional DNA.

After the release of the investigation, the Board correctly and directly took the fall for the debacle. Board of Trustees chair Karen Peetz was quoted as saying "The board accepts full responsibility. We will take every action to make sure events like these never happen again."

Penn State football (and its other sports, I presume) will never recover from the blemish; Penn State University may ultimately regroup and reinvent itself with a less indecorous image but it's a long way off.

If that's not enough to inoculate us from the virus that infected Penn State, we need to re-examine our Weltanschauung. But, of course, that's our constant project anyway. Or should be.

Perhaps it is when presidents -- and Boards -- stop asking these questions, stop worrying about where the line of disclosure is and what side they're standing on, that evils like this arise. If so, it demonstrates once again that the fulfillment of the values held most dear in higher education can only come from their constant re-examination. The relief that such important questions are "settled" is a sure sign that the guards are asleep and scandal stirs.

Those of us in power are meant to be uncomfortable: perhaps it's an irony, but too often it's the only thing that keeps us vigilant.

Mark Schulman, PhD, currently serves as president of Saybrook University, a premier graduate institution for humanistic studies in psychology, mind-body medicine, organizational systems, leadership, and human science. He is the former president of Goddard College (Vermont), and president and professor of humanities at Antioch University Southern California, Los Angeles and Santa Barbara. He has published extensively on progressive and emancipatory education, distance learning, technology and culture.

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