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Building Strengthening & Defending reputations
Building Strengthening & Defending reputations

The Penn State Lesson

A defining aspect of the academic environment at universities is risk aversion.  Institutions have elaborate internal procedures in place to handles issues that occur and administrators as well as faculty and staff are reluctant to expose colleagues to public scrutiny, sometimes even for the most egregious of violations. The Penn State situation presents a case in point, where a veil of silence and looking the other way for years appear to have allowed violations to continue unchecked.

Most members of an academic community can readily cite an example or two of faculty, staff, administrators, or the leadership in general looking the other way or lowering a veil of silence on unacceptable behaviors such as sexual harassment.  In many cases, when instances of sexual harassment on the part of a faculty or staff member are reported, administrators respond by thinking first about the reputation of the institution, not the victim.  For example, when a student accused a senior faculty member at a mid-sized university on the east coast of sexual harassment of an extremely serious nature, the dean of the college, following internal procedures, placed the faculty member on leave and initiated an investigation to determine the veracity of the complaint, and alerted senior administration. The investigation, led by two of the accused’s faculty colleagues, was unequivocal in its findings; even more troubling was the fact that the same faculty member had had similar complaints lodged against him four times previously.  In each instance, it was determined that he had indeed behaved inappropriately with students, but in each instance,  the administrator responsible had simply placed a letter of reprimand in his personnel file, chastised him for his behavior, and warned him that dire consequences would follow future violations.  In response to this latest incident, the dean felt that his course of action was clear:  he could not place any students under the charge of this faculty member, in or outside the classroom.  He wrote up charges supported by the findings of the investigative team; these were vetted by an elected committee of the faculty member’s colleagues who recommended to the senior administrator that the faculty member be terminated.

The senior administrator’s response to the recommendation made by the faculty committee, however, sought to lower the veil of silence on the investigation’s findings.  Such behavior, he pointed out, had always been a part of the academy and in previous years might have been regarded merely as caddish behavior.  He was not condoning such behavior but the academy, he argued, had become culturally over-reactive and over-sensitive to such things.  Besides, the faculty member in question was a minority and might sue the University, scrutiny the institution could do without.  Unfortunately, this senior administrator’s reaction is more typical than exceptional.  Such a fundamental aversion to the risk of exposure and scrutiny from the outside dominates the thinking of many who hold positions of authority within universities.  In this case, the dean refused to look the other way and place the faculty member back in the classroom, and because the elected committee of his peers unanimously recommended termination, the senior administrator’s hands were tied and he acted on the recommendation by terminating the faculty member.  No law suit ensued and the faculty member acknowledged his guilt and accepted the determination as final.

Had someone persisted in their exposure of seemingly abhorrent behavior at first notice, perhaps the Penn State situation might have seen a similar resolution and spared many from the agony they endured.

Risk aversion takes place at all levels of academic institutions, and is especially troublesome when the individuals whose behavior is in question stand outside normal scrutiny and the ambit of internal disciplinary procedures.  For example, when a Board member’s interest in and support of athletics becomes too particular with regard to an athletics team and his actions raise concern among the institution’s senior administrators, there are few procedures in place to address such behavior.  In one instance, a Board member who was a regular donor to the athletics program at a small university in the northeast used his national and international contacts to help recruit students into the team, many of whom came from outside the US.  His influence on the recruiting process meant that students on the team paid next-to-nothing in tuition or room and board and remained obliged to him through four years.  The Board member was on campus daily, played and practiced with the team, traveled with them to conference games, and was generally very public about his patronage of players.  Senior administrators joked about his interest in spending time with eighteen-year olds in the locker rooms and the special hugs and attention that these members of the team received.  The Board chair, also aware of his colleague’s intense interest in the team, condemned him privately, but saw his behavior as an inconvenience at most and something best ignored.  Needless to say, the behavior continued and the Board member, who had extended his tenure well beyond that allowed by the Board’s By-Laws, insisted on remaining on the Board despite calls for his departure by several women colleagues.  Not even an NCAA investigation into scholarship violations by the institution, during which the investigating team singled out this Board member for an interview and focused on his influence on the recruitment of players, could curb this individual’s behavior, so secure was his protection by the Board chair.

While there is nothing to indicate that this behavior is as serious as what occurred at Penn State, the real concern is the tendency to look the other way, especially in instances involving the unchecked interplay of power and dependence, the very foundation for the facilitation of misbehaviors.  But senior administrators, confronted by a Board chair whose attitude appears not to have been dissimilar to that of senior leaders at Penn State, found themselves unable to remedy the situation.

The problem lies, of course, in the extraordinary level of self-governance that typifies the academy.  In most instances, this serves institutions well and results in strong internal structures of oversight and accountability, as for example, in the tenure process.  But the autonomy that self-governance provides also allows institutions to ignore bad behaviors or bury them under protracted internal procedures and elaborate committee structures.

If this culture is to change, universities should be required, in all cases that could potentially constitute a violation of federal and state laws, to turn over matters to local law enforcement for investigation and action.  This means re-visiting the issue of self-governance and drawing a sharp line between matters that are unique to higher education (such as tenure and promotion or academic freedom) for internal governance and behaviors that may constitute legal violations for external review and investigation.  Even internal whistleblower policies are hardly a safeguard in these circumstances and rarely allow true discovery of such behaviors because perpetrators and those who ignore them are often also those who serve at the highest levels within institutions where they have recourse to confidentiality, a code word that can sometimes be used to ensure secrecy regarding uncomfortable circumstances.  What is needed is clear legislation that requires universities and any individuals who might suspect inappropriate behaviors that may constitute illegal actions to report their concerns to external agencies as soon as they encounter them.

Cecil Eddington

(Cecil Eddington is a pseudonym used to protect the identity of the institutions and individuals discussed in this article; the author has identified himself to the editors).

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