09/08/2013 06:33 pm ET Updated Nov 08, 2013

Universities Are People, Too

The reaction to the stiff fines and other penalties levied by the NCAA and the Big Ten against Penn State last year were mixed and are still a subject of debate to this day, and this debate presents a lesson we can all benefit from as we consider questions of ethics and "cultures" on our campuses.

Many applauded the actions, saying that they were well deserved and would send a strong message to all athletic programs -- and, indeed, to all universities in general. Others, however, insisted that the penalties were unfair and draconian. In the days immediately following the release of the Freeh report, the national media interviewed countless people for their reaction, and while opinion was all over the map, a sizable number of people interviewed said something like, "It's not fair to punish the whole institution and especially the students for the actions of only four men."

Those holding this position reasoned that while the college president and others might very well be guilty of covering up the scandal, they and not others should bear the brunt of whatever punishment was meted out. The penalties imposed by the NCAA and the Big Ten -- huge monetary fines, a substantial restriction in the number of athletic scholarships the institution would be allowed to award and the expunging of the institution's football victories from 1998 to 2011 -- affect the entire institution.

Those who had connections to Penn State were especially likely to complain to reporters that "it is so sad that the students are being punished." The Paterno family itself issued a formal statement saying in part that the NCAA's verdict was not a "fair or thoughtful action" because it defamed a great coach's legacy. An Athletic Director at a university in the mid-west told me that he was dumbfounded at the severity of the penalties, and he, too, said that the "wrong people are being penalized."

While I believe most people would agree that it is unfair to punish someone for something he or she is not guilty of, that is not what has happened in the Penn State case. As the Freeh report makes clear, the real problem at the university was an institutional culture that had become corrupt or perverted. The college had lost its moral compass.

Specifically, the report cites "a culture of reverence" for the football program and claims that this culture is "ingrained at all levels of the campus." This culture of reverence is what enabled individuals to rationalize to themselves and to others that it was acceptable to overlook Sandusky's grievous actions because protecting the reputation of the football program was the highest priority.

In announcing the penalties against Penn State, NCAA President Mark Emmert also referred to the culture of "hero-worship and winning at all costs" that permeated the campus and said that while no penalty could ever undo the harm that Sandusky had done to his victims, the NCAA will not tolerate "the culture, actions and inaction that allowed them to be victimized."

The reason why the penalties are appropriate is encapsulated in the word "culture." What happened at Penn State is not just about the isolated actions of certain individuals; it is about the institution as an institution. A university is, by definition, a collective (the etymological root of the word is "community," "totality," "the whole"). Like individuals, universities are -- or at least should be -- accountable for their actions.

Typically in institutions of higher education, faculty, administrators and other constituents are held accountable for their actions. When a student plagiarizes a paper, or a staff member pilfers office supplies, or a faculty member is inappropriate with a student, or an administrator misappropriates funds, the transgressor is held accountable for these actions once they come to light.

A university, too -- as an entity, as a collective of individuals -- is responsible for its actions. While we cannot know for certain exactly what motivated the four officials to choose not to report what they had heard about Sandusky's actions, it is fair to assume -- and the Freeh report suggests -- that it is the reputation of the collective (the football team, the university itself) that they were attempting to protect.

That is, they undoubtedly saw themselves as acting on behalf of the larger enterprise. And this is exactly why it is the larger enterprise -- both the football program and the university in general -- that should bear the full brunt of punishment.

One athletic director opined that punishing the university would not change the athletic culture "any more than punishing Enron changed the business culture." He has it exactly wrong -- on both counts. The only way to change an institutional culture is through a massive shock to the system. It is similar to treating an alcoholic or a drug addict: a major disruption of his or her routine is called for before recovery can begin. The NCAA wisely understood this when formulating their penalty.

I will add for good measure that the Enron scandal did in fact have a substantially positive effect: it caused Congress to pass the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, which instituted unprecedentedly new levels of accountability in institutions and held all accountable officers criminally liable for the decisions they make in the context of their official capacities. This law had a significant effect on universities across the nation, who were forced to conduct internal audits of their practices in order to determine whether they were in compliance with the law.

It is common for professors to point out that the courses they teach collectively have their own personalities. One might be perky, talkative, and attentive; another sluggish and uncommunicative. The same can be said of universities themselves. They can take on a certain character, demonstrate certain values, live up to certain standards of behavior -- or not.

By not reporting Sandusky's at-that-time alleged behavior, the university as an institution failed to behave as it should. Like a person who has committed a crime, Penn State as an entity violated the law, let its constituents down and is therefore responsible for its actions.

This is why the sanctions levied against the university are entirely appropriate. The four officials may well have transgressed as individuals, but it is the institution as a collective that should also be held accountable -- a lesson that we in academic administration should never forget.

At least in certain ways, then, institutions are people, too.