This morning, former FBI Director Louis Freeh issued the findings of his investigation into Penn State’s handling of sex abuse complaints involving former football coach Jerry Sandusky. The 267 page report concluded that “the most senior leaders at Penn State” demonstrated “total and consistent disregard for the safety and welfare of Sandusky’s child victims.” These four “powerful people” (President Graham Spanier, Senior VP Gary Schultz, Athletic Director Time Curley and Head Football Coach Joe Paterno) “failed to protect against a child sexual predator harming children for over a decade”, concealing “Sandusky’s activities from the Board of Trustees, the University community, and authorities”, exhibiting a “striking lack of empathy for the victims”… “in order to avoid the consequences of bad publicity”.
The report criticizes the PSU Board’s failure to exercise oversight, create a climate that fostered accountability, have procedures or structures to address organizational risks, and make reasonable inquiries into the matter when it was reported in local news in March 2011. The Board was found to be “over-confident in Spanier’s abilities to handle crises and was unprepared to deal with the filing of criminal charges against University officials in November, 2011… and the firing of Coach Paterno.”
“From 1998-2011, Penn State’s ‘Tone at the Top’ for transparency, compliance, police reporting and child protection was completely wrong, as shown by the inaction and concealment on the part of its most senior leaders , and followed by those at the bottom of the university’s pyramid of power. This is best reflected by the janitor’s decision not to report Sandusky’s horrific 2000 sexual assault of a young boy in the Lasch Building shower. The janitors were afraid of being fired for reporting a powerful football coach.”
It cites former President Spanier for “discouraging discussion and dissent” and notes a “lack of awareness of child abuse issues, the Clery Act, and whistleblower policies and protections”. (The 1990 Clery Act involves campus security policies and the reporting of crime statistics). The football program enjoyed an elite status on campus and “didn’t fully participate in, or opted out of, some university programs, including Clery Act compliance”.
The report concludes with 120 recommendations involving structures, policies and procedures to protect children, increase legal and regulatory compliance, strengthen the Board and improve administrative processes. It notes, however, that the largest and perhaps most difficult change involved that of culture “that contributed to the failure of Penn state’s most powerful leaders to adequately report and respond to the actions of a serial sexual predator.” While the University’s culture has many laudable aspects such as collegiality, high standards of educational and research excellence, the report notes “an over emphasis on ‘The Penn State Way’ as an approach to decision making, as resistance to seeking outside perspectives, and an excessive focus on athletics that can, if not recognized, negatively impact the University’s reputation as a progressive institution.” PSU should engage stakeholders, peer institutions, and outside experts in ethics and communications to conduct a review of its culture, which “may well demand further changes” at the University.
The Freeh report is painstakingly constructed and painful to read. It offers a cautionary tale for all of us involved in organizational governance. Fortunately though, it also offers a blueprint for strengthening institutions and mitigating future risk.