Ten days ago, Syracuse University put associate head basketball coach Bernie Fine on administrative leave amid accusations that Fine had sexually molested two boys. Immediately, head coach Jim Boeheim attacked the credibility of one of the two accusers in an interview with ESPN: “It is a bunch of a thousand lies that he has told... there is only one side to this story. He is lying.”
Since then, a third man has accused Fine of molestation, and the university fired Fine on Sunday. Boeheim told the media that he supported that decision, and he expressed regret for initial statements that might have been “insensitive to victims of abuse.”
As university scandals unfold, and more facts are made public, academic or athletics leaders sometimes face criticism for their initial statements. At Penn State this month, now-former President Graham Spanier was criticized for issuing a statement that expressed “unconditional support” for two administrators accused of not reporting suspected child abuse. At Duke University in 2007, President Richard Brodhead apologized to the families of lacrosse players who were falsely accused of rape.
University leaders cannot go into hiding when major news breaks, George Mason University President Alan G. Merten told me earlier this month, but there is one over-arching rule: Leaders should not absolve or condemn anyone involved. “You can not do that,” he said.
In discussing how to respond to scandal, many administrators bring up the Duke lacrosse case. In March 2006, three players were accused of sexually assaulting a woman who had been hired to dance at an off-campus party. As police investigated, President Brodhead canceled the remainder of the lacrosse season and accepted the resignation of coach Mike Pressler.
In a series of public statements, Brodhead made clear that the investigation was ongoing and that the charges had not been proven. But after all of the charges against the players were dropped in 2007, Brodhead apologized to the players and their families.
“As president, I had responsibility for the statements the university made and the actions the university took in a virtually unprecedented situation, and I take responsibility for them now,” Brodhead said at a legal conference in September 2007. “Given the complexities of the case, getting this communication right would never have been easy. But the fact is that we did not get it right, causing the families [of the players] to feel abandoned when they most needed support.”
Another example played out this month at Penn State when assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was charged this month with sexually abusing eight boys, and two university administrators were charged with perjury and not reporting child abuse to police.
Within hours of the news breaking, then-president Spanier issued a statement that called the accusations against Sandusky “troubling,” and expressed “unconditional support” for the charged administrators, athletic director Tim Curley and vice president Gary Schultz.
Spanier wrote that the two officials “operate at the highest levels of honesty, integrity and compassion. I am confident the record will show that these charges are groundless and that they conducted themselves professionally and appropriately.” At the bottom of his statement, Spanier included statements from the attorneys representing Curley and Schultz.
Although the statement was more than 100 words long, two words in particular — “unconditional support” — have been quoted over and over again. Some examples:
“To see that Graham Spanier is putting his unconditional support behind Curley and Schultz when he should be putting his support behind the victims, it just makes them victims all over again.” — The mother of Victim Six in an interview with The Patriot-News.
“Graham Spanier: ‘Unconditional’ support for Curley and Schultz is unacceptable.” — Sign held by a student outside the Penn State administration building on Nov. 6.
“It’s been five very long days and the only notable words to come from Graham Spanier have been ‘unconditional support.’” — The first sentence of an Onward State blog post on Nov. 9.
Spanier is no longer president at Penn State. In a statement following his ouster, he wrote: “Penn State and its Board of Trustees are in the throes of dealing with and recovering from this crisis and there is wisdom in a transition in leadership so that there are no distractions in allowing the university to move forward.”