The Unfinished Business In Happy Valley

The Unfinished Business In Happy Valley

(This piece first published in the  October 2012 edition of VOICES of Central Pensylvania)

 

Sometimes really, really, really smart people fail at the most basic governance responsibilities. Consider the now retired Dr. Robert Jaedicke, a widely respected accounting professor and former dean of Stanford Business School. These days, he serves in volunteer governance roles such as the Board of Advisors for Montana State University and President of the Yellowstone Park Foundation. However, during his brilliant academic career, he sat on several corporate boards, where his name and fame brought legitimacy to corporations across the USA. One of these outside gigs was as the Chairman of the Audit Committee for a major utility trader, Enron.

While never implicated in criminal activity, his governance role on the Enron board brought Jaedicke a Congressional subpoena, where he testified that even as Audit Chair he knew nothing of Enron’s peculiar transactions or opaque accounting practices. Jaedicke’s statements so angered noted management author Tom Peters (In Search Of Excellence), that he repudiated his own Stanford MBA and returned his diploma to the esteemed university.

“When the guy who headed Stanford Business School, the last bastion of bean-counting, invokes the “Clueless” defense, it makes you wonder about the value of a Stanford degree,” Peters said.

The Jaedicke experience is informative when considering people like Spanier, Curley, Shultz and Paterno. While the Sandusky Scandal is about the sexual abuse of young boys, the Penn State Scandal is about the collapse of principled leadership. Even deeper, with all revelations about the scores of civic, government, business and academic leaders in the region who knew major parts of what was happening for years and years , we might want to call it the Happy Valley Scandal. At its core, the Happy Valley Scandal is about a culture that left so many good people morally blind.

As with Robert Jaedicke, we’ve repeatedly been offered the ‘Clueless’ Defense. How is it that so many knew so much, yet no one had a clue? What happened with Sandusky should have been stopped almost as soon as it started. The systematic cover-up that ensued occurred precisely because the leadership of the Second Mile, Penn State and other civic institutions allowed a culture of idolatry to flourish. The status of the football program and late coach Joe Paterno had reached such gargantuan heights that fear of shedding light on the scandal dissuaded many from saying anything. Happy Valley had a culture so entrenched that it cavalierly overlooked the degradation of its young.

Driving home this point is the tale of the janitor, James Calhoun. After witnessing Sandusky performing oral sex on a boy in the locker room in November 2001, the visibly shaken Calhoun discussed it that night with several of his fellow janitorial staff. They did not report the matter out of concern for their jobs. As one testified it, “would have been like going against the President of the United States.” One can hardly disagree with that observation. In a culture of such football idolatry, a mere victim or an observant employee doesn’t really stand a chance.

How ascendant the football program became is illustrated by the well-known tale of when PSU leadership did try to exert some influence over football. Recall the 2004 visit to the Paterno home by Chair of the Trustees Steven Garban and President Graham Spanier. They went seeking the coach’s retirement. As revealed in the just published biography, Paterno kicked them out of the house while telling the two, “You take care of your playground, I’ll take care of mine”. On the organizational chart, Paterno served under Spanier and Garban. In real life, something quite different.

To understand how deviant this situation had become, the question was recently put to a roundtable of business CEOs and nonprofit Executive Directors, “If you and your Board Chair went to an employee to seek their retirement, and got the response ‘You take care of your playground, I’ll take care of mine’, what would you do?” Not surprisingly, the consensus was that the employee would be immediately terminated. But not Paterno. In this culture, Spanier and Garban readily abdicated their governance responsibilities. As one CEO noted, the story “gives lie to the notion Joe had ANY superiors at that place.”

And it was this culture, this perversion of priorities, this loss of institutional control which was noted again and again in both the Freeh Report and in the subsequent NCAA sanctions. It wasn’t just that the football program drove the university; the football program drove life throughout Happy Valley. There are indications that not much has changed. The largest outpouring of public emotion in this entire affair was not in response to boys being raped or in leaders looking the other way while boys were being raped. No, the fury was over the firing of the coach, the outrage over losing a few scholarships and four bowl games. 

Rather than loudly trumpet the creation of a “Center for the Protection of Children”, the university would do well funneling increased resources into the myriad of Leadership and Ethics centers already existing within many academic programs. Same holds true for our community at large. The rush to create new abuse awareness programs should be coupled with similar initiatives to bolster principled leadership in our government, business and nonprofit sectors. For, if Happy Valley is serious about ‘never again’, it will take more than tossing around a few million, creating a few children’s programs and tearing down a statue.

Over the years, many looked the other way because it was all so lucrative. And the temptation is to continue to focus upon pedophilia and away from leadership because so many continue to make a living having things just the way they always were. This creates a strong desire to ‘move on’ and ‘get back to normal’. However, ‘back to normal’ is not acceptable, for normal was a culture which distorted the judgment of so many.

Still Clueless

Penn State has tremendous intellectual assets. A few departments are world class, several colleges among the best in the nation and more than a few faculty who are premier in their field. This has not changed and remains unaffected by the events of the past year. If Penn State is a university first, then it will continue to flourish because the foundation of academic strength remains.

However, there is much in the larger community which needs to change as well. You don’t have to agree with all parts of the Freeh Report to understand its basic call to reshape the PSU culture. And by reshaping the university, there is an opportunity to reshape the culture of Happy Valley into one which is less blindly faithful and more morally courageous.

Jerry Sandusky did what he did, driven by some soul sickness (and one suspects a childhood history of his own). Call it ‘Evil’ if you wish, but ultimately there was something darker going on with our leaders. These were our neighbors. These were smart, caring men and women who heard the truth, contemplated the truth, deliberated with others about the truth and then made conscious decisions to hide the truth. In this sense, the Freeh Report is correct. We created an abnormal culture in Happy Valley which perverted the thinking of so many good people.

There is no moving on until this culture changes.

 ###

Michael Brand is a noted author, speaker and coach on issues of governance and leadership in the nonprofit sector. His work can be found at

 

www.michaelbrand.org. He resides in Bellefonte.

 

14 Comments

  1. OMG!!! This is so spot on. Just before the home opener I saw a group of 10-12 students in Sheetz all sporting those "We Are Pissed Off" shirts. Do you know how many of these kids believe they are the victims? And why not, the adults in this place are acting the same way.

    Reply
  2. I have to agree. As a PSU aulumus now living in Phoenix and thus able to view everything from a distance, it does appear that the "culture" is still so tied to football. All I hear about in alumni forums is griping about Louis Freeh and very little discussion about the flaws in the university.

    But your point towards the end about the academic strength of Penn State is well taken. It is one I wish more people would focus upon when considering "Where do we go from here?". ANY future must be built around intellectual prowess and not athletic ability

    Reply
  3. You assume they want to change. Good luck with that

    Reply
  4. As I commented some time ago, is Penn State to be a football program with a university attached or a university with a foot ball program? Apparently this has yet to be decided.

    Reply
  5. I'm not saying JoePa should not have been fired, but he is not the main culprit here, Shultz Curley and Spanier are the wicked ones. Wait to see what comes out in the January trial

    Reply
  6. Michael Berube just resigned the Paterno Chair in the English dept @PSU. Great article about it in this month's Chronicle of Education. He makes many of the same points you made here.

    Suresh

    Reply
  7. I always appreciate a great article or piece of writing. Thanks for the contribution.

    Reply
  8. Did you see Friday's story about that young boy at Central Mountain? The principal there was just as morally blind as Joe Paterno and Graham Spanier

    Reply
  9. Funny how we have all come to the conclusion that PSU and Joe Paterno (especially) are/were morally bankrupt.

    Where did we gather this information? From real, indisputable written evidence, or "conclusions"?

    How is it that a man like Joe Paterno, who for 61 years never so much as jay-walked, suddenly becomes the mastermind covering up a massive child abuse ring?

    And where did this information come from? A highly sought after man of integrity and moral conviction, or a man who left victim after victim in his wake as director of the FBI and various other government positions?

    When a real investigation, complete with real evidence that reflects the true story about what really happened at PSU is produced, I will be convinced to change my mind and become one of the many bandwagon "Joe did it" monkeys.

    In the meantime, there is not one single shred of real evidence that ties Joe to this supposed cover-up. Again, where is the "real" proof? Not the "conclusions" or suppositions made by a man like Louis Freeh, a man responsible for the ruin of Richard Jewell and for changing the Rules of Engagement at Ruby Ridge to allow the murder of a woman holding a baby. But real proof, proof that we, if we were in the same position, would demand prior to our being burned at the stake.

    It might be time for many of you to come down from your moral high horses and look at the real criminals involved here. Look closely at Louis Freeh, Governor Corbett and the Penn State Board of Trustees. Follow the money trail and see where it takes you.

    And finally, why is the 2nd Mile being given a free pass here? They are the ones who provided the victims in the first place!

    Let's all meet back here in 6 months after the Curley/Schultz trials and see what kind of real info is revealed then.

    For now, this is all nothing more than guess work, and rather shoddy guess work at that.

    Don't believe everything you hear, and only half of what you see. Thinks for yourselves.Do your homework and draw your own conclusions. It's YOUR opinion, not the man on TV's.

    Reply
  10. Thank you Anonymous for your comments above (October 29, 2012 3:24 AM). I agree there are a host of questions about the Second Mile which are being overlooked. How is it that Rakovitz and Bruce Heim have yet to be called to account for what they knew/did in 2001.

    Due to space restrictions and the theme of this month's VOICES issue, I kept this piece focused upon Penn State in the particular and Happy Valley in the general. I could easily pen another 1500 words on the Second Mile and wonder what might come out of the Curley/Shultz trial which will open new cans of worms.

    Reply
  11. Spanier finally faces the music

    Reply
  12. Buried deep in the October issue of VOICES, after page upon lugubrious page of breast-beating platitudes in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, a reader found Michael Brand’s succinct and spot-on wise discussion of the local enabling Sandusky enjoyed.

    Yes, the Happy Valley culture most of us shared – and still share – invited us to miss, ignore, rationalize, deny or actively cover up Sandusky’s unspeakable behavior. Yes, football reigned higher among us than higher education and even child welfare. Among many of us, it obviously still does.

    My own lengthy litany of examples from my Penn State career led me long ago to the firm and frequently expressed conclusion that the academic mission and revenue-producing college sports programs are inherently incompatible. But at this stage I gladly defer to Michael Brand’s accurate and refreshingly objective analysis.

    Reply
  13. This was passed around our office in discussions about football culture and sexual assault

    Thank you for this powerful insight into leadership. We have a question. Has the culture at Penn State changed in three years? IF so, how? If not, what are the major factors inhibiting change?

    Reply
  14. Wow! A powerful statement about institutional blindness. Our prof assigned us this piece for our Organizational Behavior class. I’m glad she did.

    Reply

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

16 + 9 =