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.