Joe Paterno And The Unfinished Business at Penn State

The university and the surrounding community must come to grips with an idol culture that elevated then sunk the reputation of Joe Paterno.

NOTE: (This piece first published in the October 2012 edition of VOICES of Central Pennsylvania)

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, Jaedicke 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 the culture that left so many good people morally blind.

The World Turned Upside Down

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 nurtured a culture of athletic worship.

The deification 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 hero 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 omnipresent hero worship, 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.

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. But, 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.


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

PHOTO CREDIT: CyberXRef via Wikipedia Commons

Posted in

Michael Brand