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U-Va. and Penn State crises reveal leadership failures, not a broken system

By Alan G. Merten,

This piece is part of an On Leadership round table on rethinking university governance, in the wake of the U-Va. and Penn State crises.

As someone who spent most of his entire working life in higher education, I was shocked to learn about events that transpired at Pennsylvania State University and the University of Virginia. In each case, I feel nothing but deep sadness about the behavior of individuals I admired and who I know knew better. At Penn State, a ranking member of the institution’s high-profile football program was known to be sexually abusing children under his tutelage. At U-Va., the governing board’s decision to remove its president blindsided not just the campus but the entire higher education community.

As a result, many are raising questions about whether the events at these two schools should lead to a revision of the governing structure at universities. For example, should the board of visitors or board of trustees play a more hands-on role in the day-to-day management of the institution? Should the faculty and even alumni be given a greater oversight role as well? Wouldn’t these changes help prevent the kind of cover-up and conflict that we saw at Penn State and U-Va.?

In a word: no. The internal structure at each institution, as it applies to facilitating communication between leaders and contending with bad behavior, was firmly in place. It is understandable that authorities in Pennsylvania and Virginia want to step in and “fix” the problems at Penn State and U-Va. so they will never happen again.

But the reality is that neither crisis was, in fact, structural. Neither was the result of some policy gap. Rather, these were human problems, not institutional ones. As Shakespeare wrote: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.” 

Indeed, the breakdown appears to have been triggered by an all too human problem: unwillingness on the part of key players to communicate. What we saw at Penn State were choices made by individuals to place the stability of the football program above the welfare of the students they were hired to serve and safeguard. Meanwhile, what happened at U-Va. was an apparent aversion on the part of the institution’s governing board and president to establish an effective working relationship that would serve the greater good of the institution itself. 

Neither crisis would be resolved by an overhaul of institutional structure. Though well intentioned, such knee-jerk reactions do not always speak directly to the root cause of problems and eventual harmful behavior. Since the terrible and unprecedented shooting tragedy at Virginia Tech in 2007, for instance, our nation has seen a number of multiple and violet deaths occur at secondary schools and campuses throughout the nation. Each triggered an understandable outcry of pain, outrage and demands upon authorities to “fix the problem” and never, ever allow anything like this to happen again.

Truth be told, the organizations can’t make that promise. They can, however, make sure there are clear lines of responsibility and authority in place for all the stakeholders—from the governing board to the administration to the faculty, staff and students.

Traditionally, the leadership at any institution of higher learning is a three-pronged stool: the administration, led by the president; the governing board; and the faculty. Ideally, these three entities are mutually dependent and joined together by a shared desire to make their institution the best it can be. This, of course, does not mean there will not be disagreement or conflict. Quite the contrary: a healthy tension should exist between the three.

This tension is compounded by the fact that while faculty members, governing board members, and administrators are well-educated and intelligent, many also are in possession of large egos. Sometimes, these inflated egos get in the way of sound assessment and judgment. This is where the wisdom of shared governance comes into play. Each group can and does serve as a check and balance for the others. Is it a perfect system? Of course not. But it helps promote ongoing discussion between the faculty, administration and governing board.

The tragedy at Penn State revolved around an indefensible choice by key individuals to protect themselves rather than serve others. What we witnessed at U.VA. appears to be leaders who talked at, rather than with, each other. These are examples of human faults—particularly big ones, in Penn State’s case—and of failed leadership of the highest order.

When leaders are unable to establish, protect and use a system through which communication can easily flow, it does not necessarily mean there is something wrong with the system. It means there is something wrong with the leadership. 

Alan G. Merten is president emeritus at George Mason University. He served as Mason’s president from 1996 to 2012.

The full On Leadership round table on university trustees:

A bruising summer for governing boards

Drawing back the curtain on our deeply flawed trustee system

Three warning signs that university leadership is on autopilot

What we have here is failure to communicate

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