Oped: Sandusky scandal: some lessons learned

Chris Hertig

As we look back at Penn State’s scandal involving former coach Jerry Sandusky, there are several lessons to be learned: Some of these are old lessons while others seemingly are new.

In this file photo, former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, left, arrives for sentencing at the Centre County Courthouse in Bellefonte.

The “Slippery Slope’ occurred where small ethical lapses grew into larger ones. At first it probably was easy to deny indications of child sex abuse. These are often very gray issues; easily put aside and disbelieved. But therein lies the problem: after initial denial those individuals in responsible charge started to slide down the slope. And at some point  the denial became knowing, willful falsification. The small things become big things in the practice of ethics.

Many of the administrators involved had lengthy tenure at the university. Holding a position for a long time is not a problem in and of itself; in fact having some managers for decades preserves institutional memory which is very important, and sometimes underappreciated. Nonetheless, there is often a correlation between those who have been around a long time and inappropriate conduct. With the Sandusky scandal this was quite evident.

Allied with lengthy job tenure is arrogance. And arrogance is inseparable from poor management. And poor management sometimes evolves into corruption. Our colleges are filled with highly paid, arrogant administrators who cannot see situations objectively. They don’t see the whole picture. As I often told my Ethics classes: “First they get arrogant, then they get stupid”.

An appendage to the lengthy tenure and arrogance is college presidents who game the trustees. Once a wily CEO has the trustees wrapped around their fingers, shared institutional governance is destroyed. Bear in mind that shared governance between administration, trustees and faculty is the foundation of the running of colleges and universities.

It is a system of checks and balances, something like the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government. If a U.S. president effectively stifled or abolished the judiciary or legislative branch, we would be in dire straits. Yet that is what has occurred on some campuses.

Relationships with non-employees is perhaps the biggest Sandusky lesson. This is what strikes me as unique and “new’ about the Sandusky scandal. Most of the abuse came after Sandusky retired but had an affiliation — key word — with the university. That should be a wake-up call to managers everywhere. Contemporary business needs require external partnerships of various sorts. At the same time, such relations increase risks of civil liability, negative publicity, etc. should the partner behave inappropriately.

Professional investigation with clearly delineated reporting lines are an absolute necessity. Sexual assault, sexual harassment and other delicate areas of inquiry demand them. The difficulty is we don’t always foresee the problem until we own it.

The creation of scenario exercises is one way to uncover gaps in the detection, reporting and response to incidents of abuse. Colleges have various on-campus entities  that could assist with this. Student government associations, women’s leadership clubs, Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM) chapters and so on.

Alumni played a role in the aftermath of the scandal. Alumni need to be heard, they need to be influential but never controlling. This is another delicate balance that colleges must have.

Penn State has weathered the scandal so far. Largely this is due to their having a solid business plan. When I took graduate work there, the course offerings were spot on in terms of meeting student needs. And that is an important lesson.

The Sandusky scandal can also be examined as a case study in Ethics, Law or other disciplines. Classes can dive into many aspects of the scandal.There are undoubtedly other lessons to be learned.

Chris Hertig taught Ethical Issues in Criminal Justice for over 15 years at York College of Pennsylvania He has written on applied ethics including contributing to the text for the Certified Protection Officer (CPO) program. Chris is on the York Dispatch Editorial Advisory Board.