What Can We Learn From Penn State?

07/26/2012 02:26 pm ET | Updated Sep 25, 2012

Everywhere we go, we seem to see Penn State in the news. Newspapers, websites, and TV news broadcasts continue to talk about what went wrong in this tragic story. Two weeks ago I spoke to a group of college presidents and board chairs. It was on everyone's mind. Just this week, I was in some professional meetings with a psychologist from Pennsylvania. Interestingly, he was responsible for debriefing the jury after the verdict. He said the group was obviously traumatized by the gruesome testimony.

For those who lead, teach, and work at colleges and universities, there are some lessons that we can learn from this difficult chapter in American higher education. From governance issues to personnel challenges to practical concerns, there are lessons in this for all of us.

College Presidents

It is often said that college and university presidents are responsible for everything and in control of nothing. It is true that small colleges and large university are remarkable decentralized. The president certainly has a voice, but many institutional leaders from deans to directors are often building their own enterprises with minimal oversight by the president. Regardless of these realities, it is incumbent on the president to foster a campus culture that values integrity, transparency, propriety, and accountability. When I was a VP at my current institution, the president would almost weekly ask the VPs if there were any areas of moral concern. At the time, some saw this as parochial. Now it seems courageous. Whatever form it takes, we as presidents need to relentlessly strengthen the moral fabric of our campuses.

Governing Boards

Whether we are talking about the University of Virginia or Penn State, your institution or mine, governing boards are central to the well-being of our campuses. As I talk with presidents and board chairs, passive boards are common. Often recruited by the president, today's trustees often want to be supportive and helpful. We as presidents can invite our boards to be more engaged. I will often ask our board to give more attention to areas where we may be at risk. While we all know that micromanaging has become a four-letter word in governance, today's boards can still find ways to be both supportive and diligent in holding the campus accountable for high-level outcomes, policies and practices of integrity, and planning for safety.

Campus Stakeholders
If you are involved with a local campus in some way as a student, faculty or staff member, parent, community member, etc., you have a responsibility to be the eyes and ears of the institution. When something doesn't pass the smell test, let the leadership know in writing. It is helpful and it can make the difference in keeping our campuses healthy and safe.

The vast majority of people involved with our campuses add great value to our work. Students care about one another. Faculty members invest sacrificially into the lives of our students. Coaches demonstrate remarkable courage and integrity with our athletes. Many others are collaborating together to make small colleges and large universities great. Whether it is in small concerns or large, let's step up our diligence to make our campuses even safer.