Penn State’s Board of Trustees was blasted today in a newly released report on how the school handled the Gerald Sandusky child abuse debacle, accused of failing in its oversight duties and mishandling the firing of legendary football coach Joe Paterno.
The report, issued by former FBI chief Louis Freeh’s law firm, Freeh Sporkin & Sullivan, said that the governing board “failed in its duties to oversee the President and senior University officials in 1998 and 2001 by not inquiring about important University matters and by not creating an environment where senior University officials felt accountable.”
The chairman of the Board of Trustees, Karen Peetz, said today at a news conference that the board “accepts full responsibility for the failures that occurred” in the Sandusky scandal, acknowledging that board members “did not force the issue” when it first learned of the allegations against Sandusky. But despite this, she said, none of the board members who were on the panel at the time plans to resign.
The report makes a slew of recommendations about how the university should proceed to remake its culture and rewrite its policies and procedures. Among them is a recommendation that the Board of Trustees take a deep look at how it operates.
That leads us to the University of Virginia governing board, which should also ask an independent body to take a look at the mess the board created for itself this summer.
According to the report on Penn State, the board’s lapse in oversight allowed four top school officials, including former president Graham Spanier, to mishandle the Sandusky affair. Spanier and and Paterno, along with Gary Schultz, senior vice president for finance and business, and Timothy Curley, athletic director, “failed to protect against a child sexual predator harming children for over a decade,” the report says.
A jury found Sandusky guilty on 45 counts, including involuntary deviate sexual intercourse and corruption of minors. Also charged in the case are Curley and Schultz, for failing to report allegations of Sandusky’s child abuse to law enforcement and for perjury during their testimony before a grand jury.
The report says that the officials failed to tell trustees what was happening when they became aware of Sandusky’s behavior. In fact, a timeline within the report shows that university officials became aware of Sandusky’s behavior in 1998, but the trustees didn’t learn about it until April 2011, when a newspaper ran a story about a grand jury investigation into the issue.
Still, the report does not absolve the governing board of responsibility: Had the board been more involved in school affairs and properly performing its oversight responsibilities, they would have known, the report says.
The report continues:
Once the Board was made aware of the investigations of Sandusky and the fact that senior University officials had testified before the Grand Jury in the investigations, it should have recognized the potential risk to the University community and to the University’s reputation. Instead, the Board, as a governing body, failed to inquire reasonably and to demand detailed information from Spanier. The Board’s overconfidence in Spanier’s abilities to deal with the crisis, and its complacent attitude left them unprepared to respond to the November 2011 criminal charges filed against two senior Penn State leaders and a former prominent coach. Finally, the Board’s subsequent removal of Paterno as head football coach was poorly handled, as were the Board’s communications with the public.
The report on Penn State was commissioned by Penn State’s Board of Trustees. The University of Virginia Board of Visitors would be well advised to seek a similar review of its procedures after the board, under the leadership of Helen Dragas, first forced the resignation of the popular school president, Teresa Sullivan, and then, under the weight of a backlash against the move across the U-Va. community, reinstated her. The board’s failures were many and its humiliation complete.
The two cases are similar in the sense that both boards were unaware of what was going on on their campuses and that they failed to communicate effectively with the larger campus community and the public. In the case of U-Va., the governing board was shocked when the school community rose up in support of Sullivan. That surprise showed how little board members really know about the school they govern.
These episodes are a call to boards of trustees everywhere to look at how they operate and make sure they really understand their school communities. It is not a call for micromanagement — it is a call for good management.
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