Many called events of the past two weeks a watershed.
They drew comparisons with the 1999 collapse of a bonfire stack at Texas A&M University, which killed 12 people, and the 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech, where a student gunman killed 32 people and himself.
In the first case, colleges were spurred to beef up risk assessment.
In the second, they were forced to revamp emergency notification systems and review how mental-health cases are tracked and treated.
In interviews, local presidents said at least three lessons are emerging from the Penn State scandal:
1. Create a culture of openness and protect whistleblowers.
The morning after Spanier was fired, University of Virginia President Teresa A. Sullivan told her governing board that she had made a point in an annual evaluation of commending a vice president who confronted her about a mistake.
“I must set a tone that says bad news can rise to the top of this organization without any messenger being shot for bearing it,” she told the Board of Visitors on Nov. 10, according to a copy of her remarks. Reporting policies and procedures are only effective, she said, if top leaders send the message that it’s safe to lodge complaints.
“In the current economic circumstances, people are very worried about losing their jobs,” Sullivan said in an interview. So there has to be a “policy to not go after people.”
On Wednesday, Georgetown University President John J. DeGioia sent staff and students a mass e-mail with links to policies and instructions for what to do if they suspect child abuse.
On Thursday, George Washington University President Steven Knapp sent a similar message and provided information about anonymous tipster hotlines.
“It is always tempting, whenever a problem emerges and especially in today’s environment, to circle the proverbial wagons and minimize the significance of what has occurred,” Knapp wrote. “But that temptation has to be resisted.”
2. Ask tough questions, even when a school’s image is at risk.
This lesson applies to presidents and boards. Often, a president’s primary goal is to maintain and build the school’s image. If the reputation improves, the president is a hero. If it is tarnished, the president is blamed.