Friday, January 30, 2015

WILL PENN STATE RECOVER FROM THE MESS IT'S IN?

By Charles Snow


I received my PhD in Business Administration from the University of California. In early 1974, I received an offer for a faculty position in the business school at Penn State University. Because my wife and I would not be moving to State College, Pennsylvania until August of that year, the Chairman of the Management Department offered to send us a two-week subscription to the local newspaper so that we could start getting a feel for the State College community and perhaps find an apartment to lease. When the first copy of the paper arrived, the headline article, accompanied by a large picture, was about a mirror that had been recently installed at a semi-blind intersection on a country road. I began to wonder what I was getting myself into by accepting this job.

It only took me the first year at Penn State to come to appreciate and enjoy living in State College. There are no hassles here -- no traffic jams, no waiting in line for a movie or concert, reasonable prices for the things you want to see or buy, and so on. It is no wonder that most everybody refers to the community as Happy Valley. I launched my academic career, went to college football games, travelled to East Coast cities, and saw entertainers such as Robin Williams, Ray Charles, James Taylor, and the Grateful Dead perform on campus.

The only thing of national significance that occurred in State College during my first 20 years here was Penn State winning two national championships in football in the 1980s. Although the head coach, Joe Paterno, was already a legend in town, these championships put him and his concept of student-athletes squarely in the national spotlight. The program's motto, Success with Honor, and Paterno's insistence on academic as well as gridiron excellence, provided a model for all college football programs to emulate. Terms like "football factory" or "thugs" have never been associated with Penn State's program.

All of this came crashing down in November 2011 when Paterno's former defensive coordinator, Jerry Sandusky, was charged with sexually abusing young boys, sometimes on the Penn State campus. As I described in an earlier post (The Sandusky Affair: How Penn State Turned a Crisis Into a Disaster), the University's top executives completely bungled the response to the Sandusky charges. Today, Sandusky is in prison, three top Penn State administrators are awaiting trial for their alleged crimes after more than three years, and the University's image has taken a beating in the national press.

Penn State's current struggles primarily involve sanctions against the university by the NCAA and the Board of Trustees' attempts at governance reform. The NCAA had no jurisdiction over Sandusky's criminal actions and, it was later learned, bluffed the University into signing a consent decree that placed the heaviest-ever sanctions on a college football program. Although most of the penalties have since been rescinded because of Penn State's "good behavior", the reputation of the University and its football program is still suffering. Some outsiders see the program and/or the University as corrupt, and the Success with Honor athletic culture has been derided even though Penn State has never been accused of a major violation in any of its sports programs. Paterno, the winningest coach in college football history, is now dead -- a victim of cancer but whose death may have been hastened by his firing by the Penn State Board of Trustees. The Trustees engaged in a classic rush to judgment because of the pressure from a national media frenzy.

At the moment, the Board of Trustees is clearly a dysfunctional group. The 32-member Board, under the leadership of a core of Old Guard members, that fired Paterno and then-president Graham Spanier has been reconstituted. Nine so-called "reform" trustees have been elected by Penn State alumni. These nine trustees are of a similar mind and want to review much of what has occurred post-Sandusky with an eye towards finding out the truth about this scandal and its aftermath. A second group are Old Guard members some of whom participated in the blundering and poor decision-making as the Sandusky events unfolded. They defend their prior decisions and have little desire to work cooperatively with the reform group members of the Board. A third group of trustees are appointed and represent sectors such as agriculture, business, and education. Many of these appointed members appear to not want to be heavily involved with Penn State's problems, and they tend to vote on reform and other matters in a way that follows the path of least resistance.

Can this Board and the present administration steer Penn State out of the mess it's been mired in since 2011? This is a simple question, but the answer is complex. For example, in the areas of enrollments, research funding, teaching, and donor support, Penn State is performing well. It is the University's public image that needs repair. In this regard, the biggest obstacle to restoring Penn State's rightful reputation as a world-class university is the Old Guard faction of the Board of Trustees. They are the ones who bungled the response to the Sandusky charges, who accepted the Freeh Report without even reading it, who approved the signing of the consent decree allowing the NCAA to levy unwarranted sanctions on the University, and who are now resisting the bona fide governance reforms that would make Penn State a better-run organization. Despite scathing criticism from faculty, students, alumni, watchdog groups, and the media, the Old Guard continues to defend their past actions.

After a cautious start as the new Penn State President, Eric Barron yesterday sent a message to the Penn State community that was refreshingly candid (Challenges Facing Penn State Post Sandusky). In my view, Barron's message strikes the right chord on every major issue associated with this mess. By clearly articulating his views, he has placed himself in direct opposition to the Old Guard trustees. Thus, I believe Penn State's success in restoring its reputation will hinge directly on how Barron and the Board of Trustees work together. His courage and conviction may be challenged by the obstructionist Old Guard trustees, and he will need to show great leadership skills to achieve the needed governance reforms. With the President and the Board of Trustees operating on the same page, Penn State could again be viewed as one of the country's great universities.

1 comment:

  1. Dr Snow,

    thank you for this well-reasoned and simplifying assessment of the true Penn State scandal. The entire Sandusky/ McQueary/ Corbett/ BoT/ Freeh/ Emmert story is complex. And so, unravelling it is a complex task. But as you point out here, often simple actions can have enormous effects on a complicated problem.

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