11/14/2011 06:35 pm ET | Updated Jan 14, 2012

Do the Wrong Thing: Why Penn State Failed as an Institution

When the Penn State Board of Trustees fired head football coach Joe Paterno over his failure to meet his moral obligations in the child sex scandal that came to light last week, he unfortunately became the story. But, no matter how iconic a figure Paterno is, this story is about more than just one man. It's about an institution.

The Penn State scandal is a reminder that universities, just like so many for-profit corporations, when given the choice of doing the right thing or covering up an injustice, often opt for the latter.

So far, the grand jury has indicted two former Penn State senior officials -- Athletic Director Tim Curley and Senior Vice President for Finance and Business Gary Schultz -- for failing to report a sexual assault against a young boy that was allegedly perpetrated by former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky in the football team's showers in 2002 and for subsequently making false statements to the grand jury investigating that incident (p. 12). [NOTE: Because the grand jury presentment is 23 pages in length, page numbers will be supplied parethentically for facts and quotes drawn from the report.]

But Curley and Schultz seem to be just the tip of the iceberg. There is likely plenty of culpability to go around.

For starters, Paterno himself needs to better explain his role in all this. In particular, when a former graduate assistant (now identified as current assistant coach Mike McQueary) informed Paterno that he witnessed "a naked boy, Victim 2, whose age he estimated to be 10 years old, with his hands up against the wall, being subjected to anal intercourse by a naked Sandusky" (pp. 6-7), why didn't Paterno go directly to the police?

Paterno's only public comment on the matter came in a statement that McQueary "at no time related to me the very specific actions contained in the grand jury report." But even if someone came to you and made a slightly less graphic allegation that one of your employees was "fondling or doing something of a sexual nature to a young boy" (p.7) -- Paterno's recollection of McQueary's representation -- wouldn't you immediately inform the authorities? Moreover, let's be realistic, if someone told you the above, wouldn't you push for specific details? What kind of fondling? Where? How? What was the victim's reaction? Asking these kinds of questions is only natural given the gravity of the allegation.

Sandusky had been investigated for inappropriate contact with children in the past (pp. 9-10). Did Paterno know this? If so, it's hard to imagine that Paterno didn't put one and one together. Instead, Paterno only reported the allegation to Curley. About ten days later, Curley, along with Schultz, finally met with McQueary to discuss what he witnessed (p. 7). Why wait so long? Equally important, what did all three discuss during that meeting?

Which brings us to McQueary. As radio talk show host Michael Smerconish correctly reasoned, McQueary has some explaining to do as well. Why didn't he intervene immediately to stop the sexual assault? Why didn't he dial 911? And, after he saw that this matter was not being investigated fully and properly, why didn't he leave Penn State for another program?

What's equally troubling is that the 2002 incident was not the first time Sandusky had popped up on the university's radar. In 1998, the Penn State University Police looked into a similar incident (pp. 19-20). It would be helpful to know exactly what that investigation, conducted by Detective Ronald Shreffler, uncovered. It would also be helpful to know if Shreffler was subjected to any undue pressure to alter his findings, and why his supervisor Thomas Harmon ordered him to close the case (p. 19).

In another bizarre twist, Penn State's legal counsel at the time of both incidents, Wendell Courtney, was also serving -- and continues to serve -- as the pro bono counsel of The Second Mile (p. 9). The charity was formed by Sandusky in 1977 to help disadvantaged children. According to the grand jury report, it was through this organization that Sandusky gained "access to hundreds of boys, many of whom were vulnerable due to their social situations" (p. 1). As university counsel, Courtney was aware of at least one complaint against Sandusky. Despite this, Courtney remains a part of Sandusky's organization. Courtney's connection to The Second Mile -- not to mention the organization itself -- deserve to be the subjects of further scrutiny as well.

Finally, the aloof leadership of former Penn State University President Graham Spanier created an environment which allowed Sandusky to operate unimpeded. Spanier testified that the extent of his involvement was limited to when Curley informed him of the 2002 incident involving Sandusky "horsing around" with a child in the showers (p. 10). His only action was to approve Curley's proposed solution of banning Sandusky from bringing children into the locker room (p. 8). This, though, was hardly a safeguard, and certainly not an enforceable one, as Curley admitted under oath (p. 11). At the very least, Penn State should have severed all ties with Sandusky. But it didn't. As a result, Sandusky was reportedly on campus as recently as last week. Nine years later, Penn State had yet to take adequate protections.

By not probing into the matter further, Spanier failed to exercise his oversight duties. Thus, it came as no surprise to many when the Board of Trustees forced Spanier out this week for his negligence. Yet when one realizes that numerous young boys were reportedly abused because of the university's abdication of responsibility, it's hard not to conclude that Penn State's measures will likely prove too little and way too late.

Universities may be large scale, complex institutions with many employees and many demands, as Spanier himself told the grand jury, but that doesn't excuse school officials from exercising their legal and moral obligations when problems arise.

Unfortunately, as the Penn State child sex abuse scandal teaches us, just because a university is an institution of higher education doesn't mean it will be an institution of higher ground.

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