Penn State scandal provides lessons to university presidents

November 18, 2011

The D.C. region’s university presidents gathered this week in a downtown Washington suite. After they shut the door, George Mason’s Alan G. Merten said: Let’s talk about Penn State. ¶ Yes, his peers responded, diving into a discussion of how to prevent a similar institutional crisis on their own campuses. “It’s on everyone’s agenda,” Merten said afterward. “We are all asking, ‘What do we need to change?’ ” ¶ Penn State trustees fired President Graham B. Spanier and football coach Joe Paterno last week after former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky was charged with sexually molesting several boys. Paterno and Spanier were criticized for what was seen as a tepid response to initial allegations of abuse. The charges raise questions about the culture of college athletics, but they prompt even more about how universities are run.

Presidents across the country are reviewing procedures for handling reports of crimes or unethical behavior and assessing how comfortable faculty, staff and students are in using those whistleblower systems.

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.

“Like in the Navy, if your ship hits the ground, you are fired,” said Catholic University President John H. Garvey. “It’s a very difficult job, and more difficult than it was 50 years ago.”

Presidents juggle numerous responsibilities: Small-town mayor. Corporate executive. Chief schmoozer and fundraiser. International diplomat. Enforcer of government regulations. Education lobbyist. Athletics cheerleader. Surrogate parent to thousands.

As the job has become more complicated, presidential contracts have become more detailed and salaries have increased. The median compensation for college presidents was $375,442 in 2009-10, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. At Penn State, Spanier made more than $800,000.

Presidential contracts, salaries, hirings and firings are usually overseen by governing boards, typically composed of wealthy donors with successful careers and close ties to the university. They meet a few times a year to approve high-level decisions, vote on policies and set tuition rates, but they are seldom involved in day-to-day operations.

Anne Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, said boards must assert a stronger role, asking hard questions of college leaders.

“There has been for many years a rubber-stamp culture on our college boards. These are boosters,” Neal said. “The whole of higher education has become so much about reputation, and not values and education.”

3. Strengthen oversight of athletics.

Two other major college football scandals have erupted this year. In May, Ohio State University Coach Jim Tressel resigned after it was revealed that he was aware of players breaking NCAA rules. In August, a University of Miami football booster went public with claims that he gave 72 football players and recruits cars, cash, lavish outings, bounties for on-field play and more.

In both cases, university presidents said they were unaware of problems. Although the NCAA requires presidents to maintain institutional oversight over athletic departments, it can be difficult to challenge powerful programs that generate national attention, scholarship dollars and alumni support.

Still, “there is no sport, no coach that is bigger than a university,” Merten said.

George Mason vaulted onto the national radar when its basketball team made a Cinderella run to the Final Four in the 2006 NCAA tournament. Soon after, the school reported a 20 percent increase in applications and a $3.6 million jump in donations. In 2008, U.S. News & World Report named George Mason the No. 1 “up-and-coming” school.

At the beginning of every season, Merten said, he meets with the basketball team to explain his expectations. This fall, he framed it this way: If he showed a random person on campus two photos, one of a basketball player and one of a Nobel Prize winner (George Mason has two on its faculty), chances are that person would recognize the young athlete but not the esteemed professor.

“You are the most visible people on campus — you are the most visible people in our community,” he recalled telling them. “You have extra responsibility.”

Jenna Johnson writes about Maryland politics, including the General Assembly, the administration of Gov. Martin O'Malley and the 2014 election.
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