Tag: Jerry Sandusky Scandal


The Paterno Legacy

One year ago today, the Sandusky scandal began. One year later, here we are.

I offer my thoughts on the Paterno legacy, such as it is. For the sake of brevity, I’m not going to recite the monumental (literally) good that Joe Paterno and the Paterno family have done. Rather, I’m going to speak about his legacy, meaning that which survives after he is gone. Because, while a person’s life determines his or her legacy might be, ultimately it’s the way the living think of the dead after they are gone that constitutes what his or her legacy really is.

A summary: In the heat and passion of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury presentment against Jerry Sandusky in November 2011, the news media “understood that the story was Paterno.” Although it was Jerry Sandusky and two other University officers who were indicted, it was Joe Paterno who was most visibly and most consistently vilified in the national media — to the extent that months later, a plurality of Americans identified Joe Paterno as the child predator rather than Jerry Sandusky.

During this time Louis Freeh conducted an investigation that interviewed none of those four men and came to a conclusion greeted almost universally with some level of suspicion. But it achieved its purpose, which was to vindicate the Board’s decisions. Through it all, not only Joe Paterno but the entire Paterno family had their defenders—from students outraged at the Trustees for firing him, to alumni, friends, and bystanders who tasted the bitterness of the only man (and the football coach, at that) to express any wish for having done more. Nevertheless, it was Joe Paterno, the most decent man in the story, who was destroyed, by a mass culture that constantly implied that he was somehow the most guilty.

The Paradox of the Sandusky Scandal and our Response

The paradox of it all is this: as the piling on became worse and worse, and more people became outraged and dismayed with the treatment of Joe Paterno, his family, and the University by extension, we were told that we were out of place because we were acting like we were the victims — as if the University, or Joe Paterno, or his family were the victims of the tragedy, rather than Jerry Sandusky’s child-victims.

As we became outraged by the degradation of Joe Paterno and the University well below even Jerry Sandusky on the scale of public hatred, we spoke out. Hey, let’s hold on a minute here. Who was the real villain, again? And it was those of us who ventured caution or spoke proudly of the University or Paterno who were sidelined and told it was our values that were out of line, that it was our sense of perspective that was off!

The paradox, again: (1) The Sandusky scandal was so great in horror that it wasn’t about Penn State or the Paternos (2) which is why no sanction of punishment of Penn State or the Paternos is harsh enough (3) and to speak well of the University or the Paternos is out of line!

Do you see how strange this year has been? We can almost universally agree with Statement 1, but we cannot simultaneously agree to both Statements 2 and 3. If the NCAA sanctions, or the manner of firing of Paterno, or the treatment of the name of the family is out of line, then decency compels us to speak up for them. After all, it is the students, faculty, alumni, and employees of the University who had nothing to do with this who will bear the brunt of the punishments. This seems utterly lacking in perspective, not to mention any sense of fairness.

The Sandusky scandal was certainly not about Joe Paterno or Penn State, and we were certainly not the victims on Nov. 5, 2011, but the crushing weight of hatred and condemnation for the University, the Paternos, and our values from everyone who decided somewhere along the way that they “understood that the story was Paterno” have made us — the entire University and people of the Nittany Valley — victims, also. No, certainly not on anything like the same scale; but victims nonetheless.

What we also cannot forget is that the moral certitude of social condemnation does nothing for the victims — their justice was found in the courtroom, and in the legal settlements they will receive. We have legal justice precisely so that innocent people don’t lose their heads in the public square.

The Paterno Legacy as it Lives and Breathes

Joe Paterno is dead, and we carry on speaking about him, and what we can ultimately only speculate over about his motivations, his actions and inactions, and his legacy. What is the Paterno legacy? It’s his life and the life of his family, of course. It’s also a reflection of who are, because we create the Paterno legacy by our treatment of the dead man and his family. But people who from the start were so quick to judge, so quick to let the mob lead, so unwilling to speak for him, are not a particularly admirable people. This is the thing that few have admitted with particular candor.

I don’t claim to be a better man because I’ve spoken warmly of the Paterno family, but I do know I would be a lesser man for presuming from the start the worst about him. I know I would be a lesser man for presuming to know his soul, and his sincerity, and his culpability — all things we have as a community simultaneously admitted is beyond our ability to know and yet refused to let escape our mighty judgment.

The Paternos have built, and built, and built. They continue to do so. And we’ve torn down — his name certainly, and also his statue, and places of honor from athletic trophies to academic chairs and endowments and on. We tell ourselves we’re doing this because the name is tainted, except that each time we tear down we are the ones tainting our own name. This is not Christian, which is what most of us in this Nittany Valley profess to be, because it’s not dishonoring or tainting the dead man who is now beyond our grasp but in actuality tainting his family who live and breathe among us.

What is it that we have set ourselves to building?

We have understood the NCAA sanctions to be unjust because they’re a moral statement that harms the innocent and living rather than the dead, the fired, or imprisoned, or the institution. The University will live on even if it means losing four years of bowl games. Real students are bearing the weight of punishment so that small men and women can make a morality play. This false morality is present every time someone strikes against the Paterno name, because to strike against it is only to strike against the living.

When someone dies, they’re no longer useful to us. Who we are is reflected in how we treat those who are not immediately useful to us — useful to whatever ambitions and goals we hold in our hearts. The Paterno legacy is the story of us, and a legacy of intolerance, lack of patience, disregard for due process, and indifference to the truth for the sake of an easy narrative. As many have pointed out, it is the definition of scapegoating. The Paterno legacy ends on a particularly dark note because we are ending it that way.

“We have difficulty as a nation — this is American, and it relates to our particular time — we have difficulty admiring people,” writes Bill James. “We take such pride in our skepticism. But the natural antithesis of skepticism, the celebration of virtue and accomplishment, is wandering lost somewhere. It is the age of the anti-hero.”

A great hero has died, and so-o-o many people just want to deface his grave. It is not a pretty sight.

A Poem for Penn State

A friend forwarded this to me in an e-mail earlier today. It’s circulating apparently, but as far as I know the author is unknown.

The witchhunt is over
The mob got their wish
To land a defenseless
Carcass on their dish

Because no one would stop them
No one would say
There are still unheard players
In this tragic play

So they asked for an arm
And a leg and a head
And were given a statue
While all our hearts bled

The hypocrites blathered
With hate and disdain
They wanted us dead
But they’ll still show our games?

But I know they can’t kill us
They can’t keep us weak
We will not be cowered
Because our leaders were meek

Penn state is just football?
Not on your life
It’s because we are more
That we will beat this strife

The professors will research
Will find the next cure
The students will party
Of that I am sure

Rose’s girls will keep spiking
Cael’s boys keep on pinning
And despite what “they” say
It won’t just be ‘bout winning

They’ll do it the right way
As has always been done
They can vacate the wins
But we know what we won

Tell it to MRob
Tell it to Poz
To Sean Lee and Connor
Then protect your jaws

Penn State’s about people
Penn State’s about pride
NCAA can’t govern
What we feel inside

They can’t kill our memories
Can’t take back our friends
And they can’t force our story
To a premature end

The haters can hate us
Our leaders can cave
But our student body
Can’t be made to behave

They’ll still dance for cancer
Their studies won’t cease
They will change the world
If not solve world peace

How to move forward?
JoePa knows that play
Written worlds only hurt
If you believe what they say

We all know the truth
Where the failings occurred
And won’t let our entire
Culture get slurred

Coach OB is staying
A man with some courage
Who faces a challenge
And won’t be discouraged

The fans back with a vengeance
Led by a great leader
Though they MIGHT be fewer
The wins will be sweeter

When each season is over
And the games are all played
The players can proudly say
I’m one who stayed

They’ll mean more in our hearts
Than any past team
Because they all hung tough
When Prez Rod made us scream

Kick us while we’re down?
Do at your own risk
Because we will be back
Like a tornadoes’ twist

You learn more about people
When you’re at your worst low
Who is behind me
As I get up and go?

Go harness your anger
Let it drive you each day
To keep Penn State great
And make our enemies pay

We will get our revenge
When we just won’t die
When we don’t limp away
To our bedroom and cry

The last chapter’s not written
We still own our fate
It’s up to us to decide
ARE WE STILL PENN STATE?

Reconciling the Cognitive Dissonance on Joe Paterno

A short note for sharing especially within the Penn State family: Anyone who speaks about the Nittany Valley or Joe Paterno will risk being destroyed by the mob and the fever in these heady days immediately post-Freeh. Anyone who thinks even slightly differently than the consensus of enmity will be branded a cultist, deemed a Sandusky-sympathizer, any implicitly told “tear down your thinking or we’ll tear you down.”

Nonetheless, here is an aspect of the post-Freeh narrative that I’ve observed taking place in the mention anywhere of Penn State University, Joe Paterno, or the Nittany Valley. I posted a version of this as a comment to Onward State’s “Joe Paterno’s Legacy and Moving Forward” piece.

One of the things I’ve noticed about how many of us are speaking about Joe Paterno is that we’re faced with dealing with an enormous chasm of cognitive dissonance. It’s evidenced here somewhat in Kevin’s piece, and it can be summarized in this way:

“Joe Paterno sought to lead a profoundly decent life, and over the course of his career positively impacted too many to count, so much so that he literally has transformed our community with his vision. “We are” because “he was,” and he and his wife are in the best tradition of our values. This Joe Paterno also profoundly and tragically seems to have mishandled Jerry Sandusky, and so no defense of him or his legacy could befit the conduct of an honorable human being.”

Neither half can be true without the other, and neither should work to suggest Joe Paterno is a man not worth redeeming if we want to do anything other than go insane by trying to replace one illusion with another.

Previous: ‘They Wiped Our Epitome Off the Slate’

A Penn Stater’s Micro-Memoir in the Haze Before the Freeh Report, or One Final Breath Before the Plunge

As I sit down to write here in the early morning hours of July 12, 2012 my spirit is weary. I’m a Penn Stater, you see, and later this morning Louis Freeh will be releasing his report on his investigation into the roots of the Jerry Sandusky scandal — or as his website promises, “the facts and circumstances of the actions of The Pennsylvania State University” surrounding the scandal. As a Catholic, I’ve seen this story before. No one wins. All stand to lose. And I am weary of it.

Since even before this crisis hit our consciousness in early November 2012 I’ve been writing about Penn State, about the Nittany Valley, and about Joe Paterno. I’ve spent years of my life thinking, approaching, and exploring the roots of the magic of our special Happy Valley. And there is magic here. This is one of the things I’ve noticed since the scandal, an undercurrent of sentiment suggesting a collective foolishness; that our way has always been without purpose; that our worship of an ideal of conduct has been folly given how far we’ve fallen from its attainment.

During this time when every outsider ascends his highest ground and in our collective and rightly-felt rage at this entire saga there is also a deeply corrosive undercurrent of sentiment that’s screaming…

To Hell With You. You Are Not Special. You Are Base. You Are Vile. You Are Nothing.

We of the Nittany Valley know the rage of the outside world is, in a sense, inconsequential, but also that this outpouring of enmity is perhaps not without warrant, but also not typically within the bounds of reason.

We know that as members of a family — the Penn State Family — we have somehow fallen short of our ideals. We are in, in a sense, an emotional wilderness. Yet we remain conscious of a lingering thing — that our ideals have caused great and concrete good in real lives for longer than the life of any man, and ideals, being things by definition beyond attainment, are otherworldy things. They’re magical, in other words. And they remain a part of us, and whether even we like it or not, of our most heroic and public molders and representatives, Joe and Sue Paterno.

Even amidst the enmity from within and without, many of us retain a sense that no family can survive that destroys its own. The inestimable poet Rudyard Kipling once wrote about this sense; to him, Penn Staters were The Thousandth Man.

In 2006 I founded Safeguard Old State not as A Thousandth Man, but really as A Simple Boy — as a student with an experience and intuition of the University’s administration and governing class that felt more interested in power than authentic trusteeship. Over the course of two years I wrote more than 135,000 words through more than 250 posts exploring Graham Spanier, Vicky Triponey, and his administration’s imperial mentality toward students and student life. I wrote and explored and criticized out of love — love for what I had come to Penn State thinking my experience would be, and love for what I knew from its history it once had been, and could be once more. I came to ask questions like, “Is Penn State a Real University?” This quest of knowledge lingers, probably for the rest of my life.

Since leaving the University and now observing the Nittany Valley from the City of Brotherly Love, I’ve continued to share my observations, perspective, and thinking on the University as an idea, on Joe and Sue Paterno, and on the meaning to be found from this crisis of character and purpose. I’ve written 10,000+ words here alone since autumn.

I offer this background to preface what I’m about to share, which is my scattered thinking in the moments before the University and our Penn State Family is rocked once more.

Creation and Destruction

It is so extraordinarily difficult to create, and so simple — almost villainously so — to destroy. Whatever the contents of the Freeh Report, it is diligent to bear in mind that blame for the convicted or, God forbid, the dead, is neither truly brave nor simply honest. It is in the most accurate sense the action of the unaccountable judge, because no response can be mustered to answer either verdict.

Whatever the future of the Nittany Valley and of the University, our challenge is creating a culture guided by the best aspects of our legacy. Not tearing down some parts of a culture already discredited, leaving other parts conveniently intact. Certain figures in this story of ours undeniably sought to create goodness, to add to the magic of our community. An honest accounting can not condemn them authoritatively or authentically.

The Freeh Report as Signal

At its core, and setting aside the inevitable disputes over its objectivity, the Freeh Report will serve as a signal. A signal in the sense that it will convey perhaps both implicitly and explicitly what portions of our legacy we’re allowed to carry forward into the future.

Our honor is at stake in the investigation. Also, many of us perceive a risk of this report which is that an investigation can be simultaneously unbiased and misdirected in its focus. This is hopefully a minor risk. Another thing, not often politely brought up: Louis Freeh’s professional career has been described by TIME as a “fairly vulgar picture.”

So. What I’m suggesting with the Freeh Report as a signal is basically that it is our nature to be caught up in the mob, and the danger of the report is that it will justify such a feeling. Yet our enmity is not the best of us, and so no single report can really represent the final word on who we choose to be.

On the Motives of the Trustees

One of the most obvious criticisms of the Board of Trustees since the breaking of the scandal has been the extent of their supposed ignorance about it all. How could responsible men and woman have truly heard no whispers — most especially if there was an active cover up? At the least how could they have not seen or questioned Sara Ganim’s March 2011 Patriot News story on the Grand Jury investigation?

Amidst all this then, it’s prudent to consider that of the established power groups at the University, only the Trustees as a unified body remain intact post-scandal. Graham Spanier is fired. Joe Paterno is dead. The trustees — all 48 of them (including emeritus trustees and excepting the four newly elected in May) remain. The ultimate stewards who so profoundly failed in their sole charge remain.

What am I suggesting? Quite simply this: If there is one institutional, highly organized, connected, and powerful group within the University emblematic of its worst culture of secrecy, it is the Board of Trustees and the remaining Trustees alone. They remain standing, and they’ve funded an investigation into that culture — whose root and cause of internal inaction lies in their own standing orders.

Caution would suggest a healthy suspicion, or at least caution against a foolhardy notion, of supreme non-bias on the part of these institutional trustees.

A Trustee Vignette

In January I sat down for a beer with one of the trustees. During our conversation I heard for the first time from this person’s mouth what I came to hear as an echo in the months since then and to now: The Freeh Report will be big, and it will make Joe Paterno, and everyone, look poorly.

It was startling to hear this when the Freeh Report was just getting started. How could a trustee — or anyone — know what the conclusion or even general theme of the report would be without also having a knowledge of who was guiding the questions being asked? Ever since this conversation, I’ve wondered to myself how fundamentally the conclusion of this report — whatever it turns out to be in a few hours — should be questioned as being a foregone.

Joe Paterno and Academic Sincerity

Was the “Grand Experiment” just so many words — a clever cover for a football factory? This is one of the questions in the minds of many about Joe Paterno today. A bit of history can furnish a response.

It was Coach Paterno himself in 1984, in the weeks following his first national championship win when all Penn State was congratulating itself, who addressed the Board of Trustees and called on them to raise Penn State to a national academic leader — to embark on the Campaign for Penn State, our first public fundraising campaign, and to prioritize academics and scholarship with a new library for learning. This is a critical moment in our institutional-family history that we cannot afford to forget if we choose to take the moral or ethical measure of Joe Paterno’s sincerity, or wonder whether a man who turned down better opportunities for 61 years devoted himself to coaching as a vocation rather than a career.

In other words, it was Joe Paterno’s own challenge that led the Board of Trustees to imagine the University we are witness to today. This historical account speaks both about the nature of the Trustees and the approach of Paterno.

Vicky Triponey’s Legacy

The culture of centralized authority, or what we call more simply power, predated Vicky Triponey, the one-time Vice President for Student Affairs, but to students during her time here she came to embody it most directly.

She famously re-appeared in the Wall Street Journal in November, and if whispers are any indication appears to play some role in the Freeh Report as well. This is ironic, as students from her tenure at the University will remember her quest for power and centralized authority when it came to her stripping student radio of funding after it refused to let her regulate its content, or when it came to her dissolution of student government, or her stripping students of the ability to charter student groups.

These are reasons she was disliked and feared as Vice President for Student Affairs — she was the most visible agent of Graham Spanier’s imperial presidency. So her tale to this point rings hollow for those with memory of her efforts to actively shrink the scope student leadership with a culture where she alone decided the flow of power.

Vicky Triponey was no crusader against a “culture of secrecy;” far from it. She was, likely, hired to enforce and strengthen it, and when Graham Spanier was afforded the opportunity to cleanly cut her loose for her failure to do so (while laying any consequence in the lap of his rival Joe Paterno), he happily took it.

The Purpose of Leaks

Leaks have flowed from the Freeh investigation, and based on the nature of the investigation the information revealed would have had to come from one of two sources: either the Pennsylvania Office of the Attorney General or the Penn State Board of Trustees. Further, Gov. Corbett as a member of the Board of Trustees admits to having been briefed on the e-mails the Freeh investigation — supposedly secret and beyond the reach of the eyes of the Board of Trustees — uncovered.

What are leaks? What are they intended to do? Leaks are specific pieces of information, taken from a larger context, released at a precise time and intended to shape the public narrative of a story. Leaks — and their leakers — seek to frame a narrative and decide a debate.

This is how journalism and investigations are influenced. Leaks prime the pump for a specific, desired story to emerge from a larger release of information like the 100-150 page Freeh Report we’ll all read later today. Leaks prime the pump for specific people to win, and specific people to lose. They’re not impartial parcels of facts. They’re not value neutral. They carry intent.

The Freeh investigation’s indifference to these leaks, combined with the Trustees apparently knowledge of at least some of the investigation’s content, suggest troubling possibilities. A parting observation here: the speed of the response of the Board of Trustees to the Freeh Report should indicate how much they knew in advance.

Experiencing a Genuine Masterpiece

I spoke earlier about the magic of the Nittany Valley, and of the place the University calls home. It is enculturated in all those who linger long enough in Central Pennsylvania to come to know it. All of this will frustrate the purely pragmatic reader, because it is truly and really something unquantifiable.

In Joe Paterno’s autobiography, he writes about Virgil as essential to understanding what “makes him tick.” Specifically, he shares that his view of learning is to provide young people with an experience of a “genuine masterpiece.” To understand what I’m saying you’ll need to listen to the thing in its full context, but what strikes me is that worthwhile people don’t tend to speak this way.

Our instincts have been to stick by Joe and Sue Paterno — to be The Thousandth Man, generally. And Joe Paterno’s own life on the whole doesn’t really work to suggest we shouldn’t have this instinct.

Seeking Truth

According to his family, Joe Paterno’s final instruction to his family was to “pursue the truth.” This directive does not sound like the instruction of a man with a trembling conscience. For the dying, it seems difficult to imagine a glib attitude.

In the wake of today’s Freeh Report, we’ll all hopefully work to seek truth and to reconcile the contradictions in this story. Ultimately, I do not expect this Report to be the final word on the character or nature of our University, or of many of the people who’ve come to exemplify its best aspects.

We the living will carry on the legacy we choose to claim.

It’s (Still) About the Penn State Trustees

Penn State Trustees knew about the sex-abuse allegations and grand jury investigation into Jerry Sandusky at least as early as May of last year, seven months prior to the release of the explosive grand jury report’s release, according to Penn State President Rodney Erickson:

Penn State University trustees were briefed by then-President Graham Spanier about a grand jury investigation of child sex abuse allegations against former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky months before his arrest, Penn State President Rodney Erickson said. …

Despite anger from alumni and others directed at the board of trustees, including calls for their ouster, Mr. Erickson said he believes the board is still in a position to provide meaningful leadership to the university.

But he acknowledged criticism that the board and university administration had been too cozy.

“There needs to be a healthy separation,” he said.

And as if that weren’t enough, Jerry Sandusky was given a ticket to Beaver Stadium and access to then-President Graham Spanier’s box to watch Joe Paterno’s record-breaking 409th win. This was just a week prior to his arrest on multiple counts of child sex abuse.

Could there be any clearer indication that Joe Paterno’s firing was a means to scapegoat a legend — someone who could be offered up as the most visible and delicious figure to blame — by a cowardly and basically ineffectual Board of Trustees?

Whatever blame one wants to place on Coach Paterno for not “doing more” to stop Jerry Sandusky must be amplified by one thousand with respect to President Spanier and the Board of Trustees, the head and ultimate stewards — who where aware of the investigation and allegations — any yet did nothing to distance themselves or the institution from a man under criminal investigation for child sex abuse.

Penn State’s new president Rodney Erickson, in suggesting the present trustees can still “provide meaningful leadership” is saying what any employee must, I suppose, but his defense of his bosses shouldn’t be taken seriously. This is a board that was apprised of Jerry Sandusky’s alleged depredations at least seven months prior to the crisis breaking, and their reaction was — at best — blind faith in President Spanier and his administration.

If their collective inaction on this central, single, critical issue is not enough to assign them blame for dereliction of duty, what is?

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.

Sue Paterno: ‘You Made Him Guilty’

After sixty years of leadership, formation, and honorable service to Penn State University and the Nittany Valley community, to say nothing of his national example, Joe Paterno was fired, dramatically — by telephone courier, without the dignity of even a conversation from the Penn State Trustees.

A lifetime of service, marred at the very end by a board of stewards eager to cultivate the appearance of responsible, strategic leadership amidst a media firestorm and a paucity of facts. A public shaming, without — even as board vice chairman John Surma acknowledged, a full accounting of the facts.

As Joe Posnanski of Sports Illustrated said, the manner in which Paterno was dispatched fit the definition of scapegoat. Joe Paterno would continue to serve the University’s interests, as it turned out, but as a tool at the hands of a board eager to look big by making a great man look small.

I do think Paterno was a scapegoat. Of course he was. I’ve already said that he had to be let go. But to let him dangle out there, take up all the headlines, face the bulk of the media pressure, absolutely, that’s the very definition of scapegoat. Three people were indicted and arrested. A fourth, I hear, will be indicted soon. Joe Paterno is not one of the four.

The truth will come out, of course. We’ll have, eventually, the facts the board acted without. Sue Paterno, in fact, said as much in passing remarks to the press last weekend while she waited as her husband received treatment for lung cancer.

Sue is referencing the article the New York Times ran the day before Joe Paterno’s firing.

Critical wisdom from Alan Dershowitz’s analysis last month:

As the moral leader of Penn State athletics, he should have served as a role model for the current generation of students and athletics. At the very least, he should have followed up to see whether the school had done enough to avoid a recurrence. Perhaps if he had insisted that more be done beyond taking away Sandusky’s key and gym privileges, more would have been done.

All this is clear with the benefit of hindsight. But from the perspective of events as they unfolded, it is asking a lot of a football coach, even one as revered as Paterno, to have served as the primary or exclusive guardian of the morals of Penn State.

There are two aspects of the Jerry Sandusky scandal relating to Joe Paterno. One deals with Paterno’s legal responsibility to report the information he had to the campus police, which held legal jurisdiction in the case. To this point, the Grand Jury investigation confirms he fulfilled that obligation.

The other aspect concerns what we as distant observers judge as his moral obligation to have more aggressively pursued Sandusky based on the story he had been told by Mike McQuery. Whatever our feelings here, the notion that Paterno covered up for or protected a child abuser remains demonstrably false.

What continues to stand as remarkable is that the University president, Graham Spanier, whose office is vested with ultimate campus authority, has survived without scrutiny. When speaking about where the buck stopped, as it were, well, it stopped precisely with the Office of the President. And the fact that no one seems to care about that narrative, that truth, speaks volumes about the roots of our moral rage.

Joe Paterno, as Dershowitz wrote, shouldn’t rightly serve in our minds as the “exclusive guardian of the morals of Penn State.” Penn State is the entire community — students, faculty, alumni, friends, townspeople, administration.

We expected morality, ethical leadership (even if to a degree super-human) from Joe Paterno, because we knew him to be a man of letters, to be one who spoke about God and prayer, to be one whose life has been fettered by moral conduct.

And that no one has even bothered to pretend for pretense’s sake that Graham Spanier or the Penn State Trustees may have also failed morally speaks to the extent to which we probably never expected them to. That we had judged them and their ilk, even before the scandal, to be men with a different sense of proper conduct.

We know one thing then, with Paterno gone, on the question or who stands as moral guardian of Penn State: no one.

On Joe Paterno’s Academic Legacy

On Nov. 5, just hours before news of the Jerry Sandusky broke, I wrote about What Joe Paterno Is, And What Joe Paterno Is Not, in which I asserted:

There is no glory in sameness. … In joining the same mercenary, win-or-die attitude with which coaches are treated elsewhere, that characterize the present age with some of the worst attributes — of ungratefulness, impatience, vanity, and unbalanced or unethical leadership — what would we stand to gain?

… the metric by which we can judge any replacement [of Coach Paterno] is whether the coach can conceive of an excellence deeper than wins, and whether he would lead a program and community wise enough to do so, to carry on the best aspects of our legacy.

That legacy is probably most neatly embodied in Paterno’s still bold “Grand Experiment,” in the idea of forming an excellence of character in his athletes that would be seen not simply on field, but in the classroom, and throughout life.

Of course, we know how Coach Paterno’s career ended, in his being firing by the Penn State Trustees, themselves the subject of an increasing fury. Today, though, Time confirms the continuing success of Coach Paterno’s Grand Experiment:

According to an analysis done by the New America Foundation (NAF), only 48% of the school’s football players currently graduate within six years or less.

But the more ironic news is that the team that topped the list is Penn State, whose football program coached by the legendary Joe Paterno was recently rocked by a sex-abuse scandal. According to the analysis, Penn State graduates 80% of its football players in six years or less and also shows no achievement gap between its black and white players, which NAF says is extremely rare for Division I football teams. (At LSU, by comparison, the team’s black players are 32% less likely to graduate than their white counterparts.) Winning the top honors in the academic bowl further proves the success of Paterno’s “grand experiment,” which was his idea that major-college athletes could contend for national championships while excelling in the classroom.

So this may be the only time in recent weeks we’ve had to admit — at least in this one arena — that more schools should be doing as Penn State has done. [emphasis added]

Penn State President Rodney Erickson told ESPN earlier this week that he wanted to move the University’s reputation from that of a “football factory” to a “nationally recognized academic-research institution.” In firing Joe Paterno without investigation, and now refusing to comment on the wisdom of that decision, Penn State’s leadership has, ironically, shamed and destroyed the national embodiment of its academic sentiment.

A friend of mine put it this way: “A little bit of desperately needed good news. I’ll never fully accept a football coach at Penn State who can’t ‘read Virgil with his feet on the fender‘ and still win National Championships.”

Penn State’s Information Choke Point

The Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State has been one of the fastest-moving media stories of our time. One month ago, Joe Paterno was head coach, Graham Spanier was president, Tim Curley was athletic director, and Gary Schultz was running finance.

Today, all are gone, and the long-retired Sandusky awaits trial. In terms of the future of Penn State University, though, these facts represent the tip of the iceberg.

Of all those persons and bodies whose share of the blame has been meted out by the media these past few weeks, the Penn State Trustees have largely escaped sustained scrutiny for their culpability.

I’ve taken the following from a longer email that Andy Nagypal, host of The LION 90.7fm‘s “Radio Free Penn State” public affairs talk show, wrote on the continuing scandal. I think Andy presents a framework we can use to examine the actions and inactions of the Penn State Trustees. Andy writes:

I’m sure you’ve no doubt heard the news that the Penn State Trustee Ken Frazier, who is the Board of Trustees point-person on heading its investigation announced their hiring of former FBI director Loius Freeh to investigate all aspects the sex abuse scandal.

As you recall I revisited with you the same point on air Friday before the Nebraska game — the fact that the BOT had no real independent source of information to know ahead of time when something is wrong in any given department or area of the University. All info had been centrally filtered through the Office of the President, since the standing orders to the charter had been amended in 1970. And as we all know, it all only got worse in practice under Graham Spanier.

Now that we’ve come upon what seems to be the biggest scandal in the school’s history, we see not only how ill equipped the Trustees were to handle the situation after the fact (as things quickly unraveled day by day, hour by hour) but we also see how something of this magnitude could (presumably) evade the knowledge of the Trustees.

The lack of public scrutiny on the BOT for not holding Graham Spanier’s administration accountable enough so as to not know about this ahead of time notwithstanding, the BOT was clearly left scrambling amidst all this after the fact. Now to save face, they’ll fire whomever they think they have to and hire whomever to show the world they’re getting to the bottom of all this to make sure it never happens again.

But I think it’s high-time we infuse into the public dialogue the breakdown of the functional role of the Trustees vis-a-vis the administration, which, at least in part, allowed these things to go as far as they did without the BOT being able to uncover them and hold the admin to account proactively.

Now I have my suspicions about some of these Trustees just as much as all the know-it-alls outside of Penn State who think they’re so smart about how Joe Paterno had to have known this, that, and the next thing.

To me it’s fishy how Joe Paterno, Graham Spanier, Tim Curley, and Gary Schlitz testified to a Grand Jury about Jerry Sandusky in December/January (a story made public in the Harrisburg Patriot-News in March) and yet the BOT didn’t see any of this coming? No contingency plan? No emergency “what happens if the attorney general levels charges” response?

I can only imagine what the closed-door conversations must have been after March, if not after December/January. One could argue incompetence at the BOT level even if we find no evidence of willful negligence — let alone complicity.

As we said on air, no amount of new positions and set-it-and-forget-it bureaucracies (such as newly-named Penn State President Rodney Erickson‘s appointing of an “Ethics Officer”) make up for a lack of what should be the Board of Trustees’s duty of proactive diligence in keeping tabs on what goes on.

Structural changes won’t substitute for individuals to do the honorable thing — ironically now the cliche: “all it takes for evil to exist is for good men to do nothing”. Why is this mantra not applied in hindsight to the BOT?

Few seem to be angry at the BOT as compared to the many upset with Joe Paterno — partially because they’re ignorant of the University’s hierarchy, and also because they think Joe had “all the power in practice”. But there are many who are angry with the BOT not just for their ignorance in the scandal, but for firing Joe.

I think there’s potential now, with so many people outraged, to really shake things up on the Board of Trustees. I predict many could come out of the woodwork attempting to run for the Board of Trustees, citing all of the aforementioned reasons.

To summarize:

  • Centralized Presidential Powers: Thanks to the 1970 change to Penn State’s Charter in its standing orders, the president of the University was vested with enormous, functionally dictatorial, powers covers all aspects of life at what is today a $3.5+ billion annual operation. What the Trustees knew is what they were presented with at quarterly meetings. Put another way: the president, nominally the employee of the Board of Trustees, provided all information the board had to guide decision making. Imagine an employee being able to write his own performance review (and provide his own data) for his boss. Pretty great, right?
  • Loss of Equal Authority/Checks: This 1970 change in the charter also wiped away the practice of shared governance as it was classically understood and functioned, meaning the student body president and faculty senate leaders became something like advocates/lobbyists to the University president, rather than co-equals.
  • Lack of Leadership/Contingency Planning: The Patriot-News in Harrisburg reported on the Grand Jury investigation earlier this year, in the spring, and yet when its report hit earlier this month, the silence of Graham Spanier and ham fisted, listless handling of the crisis by the Trustees demonstrated a genuinely stunning lack of basic strategic/contingency planning for what anyone could have seen would cause a firestorm.
  • Likely Onslaught of Trustee Candidates: With 500,000+ living alumni, it’s safe to bet that we’ll see a pretty sizable slate of candidates for the next round of Trustee elections this spring, and an influx for years to come. Whether sitting trustees are forced to resign, widening the field of electability, will depend on:
  • Media Scrutiny of the Trustees: In firing Joe Paterno, the Trustees were able to focus the media frenzy on the ousting of a respected, universally admired 84 year-old coach. As memories of Paterno’s ouster fades, and the Sandusky trial drags on, the question remains: will the media investigate the moral negligence of the Penn State Trustees?

Update (11/29, 7:30pm): Penn Staters for Responsible Stewardship looks to be taking a professional, coordinated approach to the replacement over time of the entire incumbent class of Trustees. Join on Facebook. From their homepage:

We are Penn State alumni and friends who are outraged at the manner in which Penn State’s Board of Trustees fired Head Coach Joe Paterno, a man whose name is synonymous with honor, character, and integrity, to gratify a media lynch mob.

We perceive this as a contemptible display of moral cowardice and organizational groupthink that renders the existing Board unable to command the continued trust or respect of the University’s stakeholders: alumni, students, parents, faculty, and Pennsylvania taxpayers. Honor, common decency, and the best interests of the University require a Board of Trustees (BOT) that will exercise responsible stewardship in the future.

Our goal is therefore to replace all incumbent alumni trustees, and reject all nominating committee candidates, through the nomination and election of worthy petition candidates.

The local Centre Daily Times, meanwhile, published “Trustees Violated State’s Sunshine Act,” (PDF) a piece examining how unannounced meetings and sloppy firing of Joe Paterno appear to be in violation of Pennsylvania public corporation disclosure requirements.

Culpability and Penn State Trustees

In the continuing fallout from the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal at Penn State, the one entity that has basically escaped critical evaluation or any sustained sense of culpability is the University’s Board of Trustees. The following analysis, written by a friend of mine and posted to a news article last week before Joe Paterno’s ousting, sums up my sentiment pretty well.

Tonight’s debacle lays bare this board’s lack of prudential judgement. The horrific scandal that led to it, one whose consequences will forever stain the reputation of the institution, exposes their long-standing and profound failure of leadership.

For more than 15 years, this body happily abdicated its responsibilities, ceding ever more power and control (with decreasing accountability) to a cabal of administrators-turned-despots who were predictably, inevitably and absolutely corrupted. Make no mistake. The trustees are culpable. The institutional culture of unchecked avarice and arrogance that allowed this tragedy is the direct result of the board’s “see no evil” neglect of its duties. So it is no surprise that when they were called upon in time of need to serve Old State in its darkest hour, the result was a listless and embarrassing press conference that revealed exactly who is now in charge at Penn State – nobody. If Graham Spanier, and Heaven help us, Joe Paterno must be made to pay for these crimes, then every member of this board should tender their own resignations tomorrow.

Instead, of course, the Trustees have kept their jobs, appointed one of their own as the new interim athletic director, and promoted Rodney Erickson, formerly disgraced president Graham Spanier’s right-hand man, as Penn State’s new, non-interim president.

I spent last week in State College to be on hand to help cover and be present with my friends and alma mater as it went through its worst week in school history. The LION 90.7fm, the campus radio station, has great comprehensive audio available from its coverage throughout the week. It’s worth a look.