Penn State Trustees and the Inconvenience of Deliberation

Over the past eight weeks, in the fallout from the public Jerry Sandusky scandal, I’ve written at length about the body I believe is most responsible for the coverup and disaster that the depredations of one man have needlessly caused to Penn Staters as an entire family.

That body is Penn State’s Board of Trustees. They’ve encouraged information-starvation, they’ve engaged in a bumbling, embarrassing response, and they’ve explicitly made a culture of secrecy the order of the day through their standing orders, making transparent, frank public disclosure impossible. I cannot stress this last point enough.

ABC News now reports with Penn State Memos Show Funding Fears, Secrecy Effort:

In the first memo, issued nine days after the charges were filed, new school President Rodney Erickson told the 47-member Board of Trustees that the public-relations teams of the university and the athletic department had met to “align our messages” …

Also Nov. 15, the two top-ranking members of the Board of Trustees wrote to other board members to say that debate among the full board, including emeritus members, had become too cumbersome in the eyes of many trustees.

“We need to streamline the communications among and with members of the board,” Chairman Steve Garban and Vice Chairman John Surma wrote, days after media reports surfaced of eroding support for Paterno and Spanier. “First and foremost, there have been serious breaches in confidentiality of our discussions and we will take the necessary steps to address these. Second, a smaller group will be more effective to provide feedback to President Erickson.”

The executive committee was designated to serve that function, Garban and Surma wrote, adding that no major policy steps would be taken without appropriate participation by the full board.

Now, understand what Trustee Vice Chairman John Surma means when he frets about “serious breaches in confidentiality of our discussion” as a reason to eliminate strategic, open deliberation and discourse among the voting trustees.

Centralization and Alignment before Deliberation

What all this really gets to is this: the entire purpose of the Trustees is to serve as the stewards of the University, as strategic deliberators for responsible governance. In times of crisis, the “alignment” President Rodney Erickson spoke of needs to be all the more deliberative.

The Jerry Sandusky crisis became the firestorm it was primarily due to the decision by a few who possessed centralized power and discretion to keep it a secret, basically. And when the crisis breaks, the Trustees’ response is to eliminate discourse and “align” on decisions within a circle of 5-6 people of 31 voting members?

Centralized executive power created the culture of secrecy that led to a cover up even being possible.

And Rodney Erickson and John Surma’s approach in the wake of crisis was to double down on that centralization and the elimination of “careful consideration or discussion” in its approach to everything, most prominently the firing Joe Paterno, itself ill-timed at 10:30pm and causing a campus riot.

I understand the inconvenience of the Board of Trustees functioning as a deliberative body. Fewer voices is always easier, especially when PR-driven “alignment,” rather than strategic stewardship, is your metric.

But the eschewing of deliberation and the functional disenfranchisement of elected trustees until the very last possible moment before voting to do things like fire Joe Paterno represent not simply a difference in approach to leadership, but the dereliction of the duty of trusteeship.

The Consequences of Centralization over Deliberation

And that approach to leadership, the consulting-driven centralized “alignment” approach, has real differences in consequence. Like a student riot, property destruction, alumni disgust, donor bullying, and an overall approach that taints the authenticity of the rest of the Penn State family’s response to this tragedy.

Joe Paterno, despite the administration canceling his press conference, spoke consistently to the media from his home, and to the students, demonstrating specific, transparent, and candid remorse and a tearful apology.

Contrast this with the devil-may-care attitude toward leadership within the Penn State Trustees and central administration. Graham Spanier, the president, essentially went into hiding as news broke, and hasn’t been heard from since he talked about only ever “conducting himself honorably.” Okay.

Because when an executive committee (5-6 people) makes the decisions, and when the entire board that (as required) falls in line and is shielded from public accountability, who really needs to give a damn?

The Penn State Trustees’ hand-off-responsibility, eliminate-deliberation, duck-and-cover approach to crisis leadership isn’t an aberration, but the natural consequence of a group that’s never really had to perform their duty of deliberation and strategic stewardship.

A Real Dereliction of Duty

That’s why, despite initial news of the grand jury investigation into Jerry Sandusky and Penn State breaking in the Harrisburg Patriot-News as early as March of 2011, none of the 31 voting trustees thought it worth their time to have a plan in case of the worst.

There are a few ways to interpret this:

  1. The Patriot-News broke the story of the sex abuse investigation in March 2011, and the entire board never knew. In which case they should resign.
  2. The Patriot-News broke the story and some of the trustees read it, and asked no questions of Graham Spanier. In which case they should resign.
  3. The Patriot-News broke the story and some/all of them read it, and asked the administration, and went along without real inquiry. In which case they should resign.

The dirty little-big secret of the Penn State Trustees is that “debate among the full board” has for years been “too cumbersome.” So that debate doesn’t happen, and critical questions fester unasked or wished away. The executive committee decides a course of action in conjunction with the administration, and the rest align on that course of action.

This is the secret of how a supposedly deliberative body of 31 voting trustees has systematically failed in their role as strategic stewards of Penn State.


Add yours →

  1. Thomas, this piece is very well thought out, and I hope it is read by many people who were quick to make judgment calls.

  2. Excellent commentary.

  3. To Tom Shakely

    The Penn State Board of Trustees trusted (pun intended) and gave free reign to Spanier, Paterno, Curley, and Schultz for the years 2002 through 2011. They trusted that every working day these individuals had the school’s best interest as the foremost goal in whatever work related action they took. They trusted four well known, experienced, glorified individuals to maintain, exemplify a moral and legal standard second to none in the NCAA world of university education. They trusted that these same four had the moral conviction and the adult character to serve and protect even the most innocent and frail who might visit their campus.

    But when that trust was compromised, when it was exposed that all four had kept from the police and the public a secret that put in jeopardy every little boy in the Happy Valley society for nine years, they acted swiftly and with dispatch.

    Those slovenly “small four” had nine years to right a wrong. Thank God and thank human decency that it took the Board only a few days to expose this abuse of power and quickly initiate a healing process that may take at least another “nine years!“

    The Penn Staters For Responsible Stewardship, like Paterno, like Curley, like Schultz, like Spanier continues to ignore that innocent little boy, continues to trivialize his existence, continues to make him invisible,.

    For Shame.

    • Dear Mr. Anonymous,

      I, William A. Levinson, B.S. ’78, joined Penn Staters for Responsible Stewardship because of my outrage over the Trustees’ irresponsible rush to judgment against Paterno, with no evidence (by Surma’s own admission) that Paterno had done anything wrong. The Trustees’ pusillanimous act of moral cowardice therefore disqualifies them from commanding the trust, respect, or confidence of anybody in the Penn State community. (I am speaking about my my personal reasons for joining PS4RS and am not presenting an official position of the group.)

      In fact, noting McQueary’s testimony that he merely inferred a sexual act between Sandusky and Victim #2, and admitted he never saw it, I would as a juror acquit Curley, Schultz, and Sandusky (for Victim 2 only) without even bothering to listen to their side of the story; the prosecutor’s side, via McQueary, is good enough. If McQueary told Paterno the same story, Paterno would have been remiss in doing anything “more” than what he did.

      Re: ““First and foremost, there have been serious breaches in confidentiality of our discussions and we will take the necessary steps to address these.” Does that mean the Trustees are upset that their members are obeying the state’s Sunshine Law by not holding secret meetings and discussions? It is credibly alleged that the meeting of Nov. 9 violated the Sunshine Law. In other words, there is far more evidence that the Trustees violated the law (admittedly a summary offense, like a traffic ticket) than that Paterno violated the law, of which he is not even accused of doing.

      I encourage all Penn State alumni to obtain ballots (you must request one by January 15 if you are not an Alumni Association member and have not donated to the University recently) and vote against incumbent Anne Riley this year, and against the other incumbents (e.g. Myers, Garban, Suhey) in the next two elections, and also against anybody nominated by the Board’s nominating committee.

      • Hey Bill, let’s take a look at you and me.

        Had I been there for Shower 2002, this is what would have happened. Sandusky would have been sent to the floor writhing in pain, the boy would be asked to put on his clothes, and my cell would be dialing 911.

        Bill, if you had walked onto this scene, you would have immediately tried to calculate if Sandusky was in the act of “putting it in” or pulling it out.“ You then would have asked “What’s going on here?“ Sandusky would have replied he and the kid were just “horsing around.” Not sure what to believe, your eyes or Sandusky, nevertheless you most assuredly would have contacted your father or another father figure, JoePa

        In summation, in our own individual ways, I would have instinctively done first what was in the best interest of the victim. You would have instinctively done first what was in the best interest of Bill.

        I, along with a million others, would have first thought completely about the welfare of the child. As a result, the right thing would have been done instinctively without hesitation. Yes, instinctively and without hesitation!

        • Re “Had I been there for Shower 2002, this is what would have happened. Sandusky would have been sent to the floor writhing in pain.” Sure you would, Mr. Beer Muscles. Sandusky is 6’1″ and he works out. (McQueary is 6’4″ by the way.)

          Also, if you physically assault another person without cause, YOU are guilty of a crime so you had better be 100 percent sure of what is going on first. As an example, you hear gunshots, run into a room, and see a lot of people lying on the ground while a man with a gun struggles with another. I bet you’d shoot the gunman, right?

          …and you might then be guilty of manslaughter. The man with the gun had just wrested it from the deranged maniac who had shot Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and several other people, and was struggling with said maniac. The armed citizen who came on the scene, however, did not act like a loose cannon.

          • Bill, Love ya!

            You sure put me in my place, don’t you know.

            Your right, I could have gotten myself into a pile of legal trouble had I shown off my MMA pedigree. Whew, thank you for straighten me out! And you definitely have a future as a TV sitcom writer. I could visualize the action so vividly as you deftly described the movements of the protagonists in Scene 1 and Scene 2. Consider me “ekujaded!”

            But curiously Bill, you rascal you, you managed to “Skip To My Lou” evading the real issue here. Please read, oh so carefully…

            Call it “fondling,” “touching,” caressing,” or “horseplay,” a naked male adult with a naked minor in a closed private gymnasium at a major university on a Friday night constitutes reasonable doubt as to the appropriateness of that adult’s behavior. A 911 call is mandated here without hesitation. Period! End of paragraph! You let experts take over and evaluate and judge the legality or illegality of the scene. Everytime! Yes you do!

            Okay Bill, your turn to rewrite a new script that shows me “a…running from getting “wet,” and all nervous and scared, to the nearest cell station.”

            An important aside: Dear Bill, you made quite a commotion about McQueary being 6’ 4’’ and all. What you were inferring is if the child were in any real trouble of any real “sexual inappropriateness,” the brave redhead would not have hesitated to use his considerable muscle.

            But alas, here is what the evidence both circumstantial and direct has to say about Mr. Assistant Coach Tough Guy. Here’s why for McQueary, instinctively doing the right thing never occurred that fateful evening. Unlike the reactions of anger, concern, protection, survival, and dismay that “should” have been in force, curiously and amazingly, it was McQueary’s 180 degree opposite behavior to these emotions that took over the scene. He was first shocked and then felt “distraught” over what he had witnessed. Again, the masses would have felt many emotions including some combination of shock, anger, fear, intimidation, dismay, weakness, puzzlement, outrage. But none would have walked away from the victim feeling “distraught.” But distraught is what McQueary exactly described how he felt. What? Why? How?

            Unlike the masses, McQueary felt emotionally paralyzed to do anything because of one reality, one fact. His recognition of Jerry Sandusky. It was this recognition that caused him to process a very different reaction from the norm towards a sexual attack he very clearly witnessed and was very clearly repulsed. Instead of securing protection for the child, he instantaneously went through a series of mental checks. He first realized and processed his familiarity with Sandusky. Then thought of Paterno‘s life long relationship with the attacker. Next, he processed his own relationship with Paterno, and finally, his employment future with the Penn State football program. All of those considerations, considerations that would not have been conjured by anyone else, not by me nor by you Bill, caused McQueary not only to walk away from the child but, instead of contacting the police, he went directly to his father! The kid’s needs, the kid’s fate had been instantaneously compromised and made irrelevant in face of McQueary’s sudden realizations and sudden recognitions.

            McQueary’s testimony will prove to be solid and unwavering, even in the face of defense lawyers throwing grenades from all directions. when trials both civil and criminal resume. You can take that sentiment to the proverbial bank. But Bill, you gots to realize, McQueary and his wife and his daughter have been totally devastated by the reaction of the public to his behavior of child rejection. He, for sure, is an emotional wreck. Understandable, because he never saw this reaction coming. And he is being hounded from all sides as to “exactly” what he saw, “exactly” what he heard, “exactly” what he did. This critical suspicion of a man who had absolutely no motive to lie, to exaggerate, to slander. None! No! Never! Not!

            The Court of Public Opinon has found McQueary guilty of child abandonment. He’s screwed. All the “small four” administrators have left is to try and convince the courts that McQueary made the whole thing up. He lied. Yeah, right!

            Bill, your script er……your response.

    • Mike…it’s just this sort of over-the-top uninformed hyperbole that results in the baby being thrown out with the bath water in cases such as this. But…don’t let that stop you from making yourself feel better by wearing your “outrage” on your sleeve and condemning people who have done more to help their fellow human beings than you will ever do in three lifetimes.

    • According to Merriam Webster, the definition of a trustee is “one to whom something is entrusted” NOT someone who trusts that others will take care of things! The BOT’s also had YEARS to investigate these allegations and not only did they not do that, they allowed all of us as a community to be completely blindsided by this scandal. Furthermore, once the scandal broke, in a “CYA” kind of move, they allowed others to be the scapegoat to quiet public outrage while they finally figured out how they were going to proceed. They are every bit as guilty as anyone who is eventually convicted of a crime AND their negligence may allow individuals who are indeed guilty of a crime to walk free. I pray THAT doesn’t happen. NO ONE has forgotten the victims here!!!!

      • Linda, thank you for your response. It is nice to know of your passion for truth.

        When one is “entrusted” with a responsibility so all encompassing as being a Board member of a great and massive university such as Penn State, one, at the very same time, must be able to take trust, to have trust, to disseminate trust to those whose duties include the administration of the University.

        Just as you “trust” Websters to define “entrusted” in a meaningful “trusting” manner.

        The BOT, like the community, was unaware of these allegations because four administrators betrayed the trust they had been given by the masses. That is why all the Second Mile workers, the campus police, Child Protective services, the student body, you and me all were unaware. Yes Linda, had one of those four men come forward in 2002, you and I wouldn’t be having this communication.

        When there is a fire, you either throw water on it or call 911 or do both. But in either case, you act immediately without hesitation. Let me repeat: You act immediately without hesitation. When Paterno and his colleagues failed to do this, the fire burned for the next nine years.

        • My understanding is that Penn State’s so-called Trustees knew about the investigation of Sandusky at least six months before their cowardly and irresponsible rush to judgment of November 9. Then-Attorney General Corbett knew even earlier.

        • I’m sorry……I haven’t heard the BOT’s actually speak to this at all so why is it that you can say with such conviction that they, “like the community, were unaware of the allegations”? As I maintained earlier, it is the BOT’s who were entrusted with oversight of this great institution and the BOT’s who failed to do so. Were there other failures? Too many to even count!! But the buck stops with the board, and they need to go! Wait a minute……is this really John Surma??? That would explain a lot!!

          • Linda sweetheart, you are so right! You should be sorry.

            To blame the BOT for a cover up of a secret that was so…… well, so well covered up, would be to blame the police, Second Mile, Child Protective Service, the public at large, OJ, Casey Anthony, you, and me! Sorry, that’s one class action suit that will never fly — not even in this litigious society.

            Please be real. No, the BOT is and never will be responsible for bad guys doing secret bad things under the protection of their offices, their reputations, and their notoriety. If you do know of other failures caused by this historically famous and productive Board, please don’t do a Paterno, speak up!

            It’s sad to me that you are willing to irrationally deface, disparage a great University and its great BOT for the purpose of defending one man’s misbehavior. For shame on you, Linda!

            An aside: I’m glad Pontificating Bill added to this post that the BOT knew of the Sandusky investigation
            “…at least six months before their cowardly and irresponsible rush to judgment of November 9”

            You know, how much of a rush to judgment could it have been if they had six months, yes six months, to consider the firing of the “small four.”

            Yeah, that’s right. There’s was a decision neither cowardly, nor irresponsible, nor “rushed.”

            Okay, Linda. Bring it!

    • Re: “the auspices, the watchful eye, the professional integrity of a Board of Trustees that is second to none in the annals of American university history.” Too bad the Trustees blew all that in a single rash and irresponsible act.

      Look up the organizational dysfunction of groupthink, in which unanimity is valued above a quality decision. It often happens under pressure like that the Trustees faced; instead of acting rationally, they soiled their collective pants and behaved collectively like a scared rabbit.

      Other rushes to judgment (groupthink):
      (1) Spanish-American War, in which the era’s ESPN (Heast and Pulitzer) goaded the country into a war with Spain.
      (2) World War I, for which more than 400 supposedly responsible and distinguished Members of Congress voted. (It was then suspected and later proved that the Lusitania carried munitions and was therefore a legal military target.)
      (3) Germany’s invasion of Russia in 1941, after the Nazis began to believe their own propaganda about German racial superiority.
      (4) Bay of Pigs invasion, which John F. Kennedy & Co. were SURE would succeed.
      (5) Launch of the space shuttle “Challenger” and loss of all seven astronauts.

      Watch the video of Mr. Surma trying to defend the Trustees’ actions to the press on November 9. It is easy to recognize a man who can’t defend an indefensible act in which he participated.

      • My Darling Pontificating Bill

        Okay, okay, okay. I submit to your accumulation of the facts and of the evidence. I’m convinced, like yourself, something should be done about this BOT of whom I’ve been grossly mislead. Let’s meet and with appropriate weaponry make an early morning foray into their castle fortress and send their collective personalities to a week’s vacation in Juarez, Mexico. They’d never get out!

        Bill, I now have immediately changed my judgment of this misanthropic group due to this new evidence. Who knew the BOT caused the Spanish American War, World war II, had Germany invade Russia, initiated the Bay of Piglets party, and destroyed NASA. Wow! Now those are real secrets I never knew anything about. Wow!

  4. To Bill Levinson

    There was reasonable doubt that Sandusky was acting properly and decently with the child. And when that kind of reasonable doubt occurs, an American citizen is required by law, moral and legal, to report any act such as the shower scene to police authorities. Without hesitation, without hesitation, without hesitation!!!

    Call it “fondling,” “touching,” caressing,” or “horseplay,” a naked male adult with a naked minor in a closed gymnasium on a Friday night constitutes reasonable doubt as to the appropriateness of that adult’s behavior. Period! End of paragraph!

    You know, no one ever expected the “sad foursome” to be criminology experts, to be psychologists, to be campus guards, to posses the expertise to judge correctly or evaluate accurately the incident that was Shower 2002. They were only asked to protect a child and secure a shower room by dialing 911! And dialing 911 is what the masses would have done, what the Board of Trustee members would have done, what you and I would have done. For this inaction alone, the small four needed to be condemned instantaneously. Thank you Board of Trustees.

  5. Tim

    Thank you for your response. I feel your anguish. I really do.

    Put your emotion aside for a brief second and understand the reality of the moment.

    Millions of Americans across the nation have been expressing passionately and without restraint their judgment of the Jerry Sandusky affair, a judgment motivated by one dominant issue. That issue being the tragic image of a defenseless little boy being overwhelmed and sexually exploited by a real live monster! The little boy image abstracted horrifically in the minds of a caring society has captured the emotions, defined the unlimited outrage of folks — emotional and outraged!

    It is the victim who is the single most important issue. And those same millions are screaming out daily: “Why didn’t Paterno immediately report to the police? Why didn’t Paterno immediately inquir about the safety of the child?” Again, understand, the masses outrage is motivated, prompted exclusively by one single event having to do with one single little boy.

    This horrendous incident is exactly what has gotten society’s proverbial juices flowing. This is the central theme, the primary subject that must be kept in focus. The American public has clearly and righteously demanded it to be so. And it’s definitely not a witch hunting, hysterical press that prompted those questions. The press didn’t influence the condemnation the masses have for adults who “royally crapped out by royally covering up!” It’s moral decency, common decency, that is processing and evaluating and speaking to these questions.

  6. The central point of this post is to point out a cozy collusion between the Penn State Trustee Executive Committee and the University administration. As I’ve written about in other posts, this is a structure that’s existed since 1970 when the Standing Orders of the Board of Trustees vested all power within the Office of the University President.

    @Mike4949:disqus You missed these points entirely. Talk about Joe Paterno (and whether or not one believes he should have been fired) really isn’t directly on topic, and this post isn’t an invitation to get into braggadocio about what you would do if you encountered a sexual predator. You’re blacklisted.

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