Louis Freeh speaks about the Freeh report, his group's report into the Jerry Sandusky child sex scandal and Penn State senior leaders' "total disregard" for the safety and welfare of the ex-coach's child victims. (Matt Rourke/AP)

Penn State’s long-awaited Freeh report, summarizing the independent investigation into the incidents of child sexual abuse on the university’s campus, is out — and it pulls no punches.

The report, led by Judge Louis Freeh, a former director of the FBI, wrote that four of the top officials at the university “failed to protect against a child sexual predator harming children for over a decade.” It says that the former president “discouraged discussion and dissent.” And it notes that the “most senior leaders” at Penn State demonstrated “total and consistent disregard…for the safety and welfare of Sandusky’s child victims.” (A statement from the Paterno family can be read here.)

But they are not the only leaders at Penn State who received harsh words from the Freeh report, a gripping and disturbing account of the events leading up to Sandusky’s arrest. The board of trustees does not escape excoriation, either.

Top leaders were “unchecked by the Board of Trustees that did not perform its oversight duties.” The board “failed in its duties to oversee the President [Graham Spanier] 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.” And they were blamed for “overconfidence in Spanier’s abilities to deal with the crisis,” a “complacent attitude” and a failure to have “regular reporting procedures or committee structures in place to ensure disclosure to the Board of major risks to the University.”

That’s pretty searing stuff about the group of people who hired Freeh to do the investigation. If there were any doubts about its independence, the report pretty much eliminated it.

One might argue that if the president chose not to alert the board about incidents in 1998 and 2001, then the trustees were simply left in the dark and couldn’t have done more. The Freeh report sees it differently. Because it did not have “regular reporting procedures or committee structures in place to ensure disclosure” of major risks, the board “failed to exercise its oversight and reasonable inquiry responsibilities,” the report states.

It doesn’t stop there. The Freeh report also cites the lack of a “tone at the top” environment that would have made senior Penn State officials feel accountable. And it notes that some trustees described meetings as “scripted” or “rubber stamping” for decisions made by a smaller group of trustees and Spanier. Most important, it faults the board for not independently assessing the briefing it got from Spanier and Penn State’s general counsel about the Grand Jury investigation in 2011 (which one trustee first read about in a newspaper), and for not asking for further updates at future meetings.

The board is making changes—the Freeh report notes that in March the board redesigned its committees, adding one for “audit, risk, legal and compliance.” And the investigators offer more than 20 suggestions for how it can improve transparency, operations and communications. (Penn State officials released a statement Thursday morning saying they want to make sure they “are giving the report careful scrutiny and consideration before making any announcements or recommendations” and intend to respond further on Thursday.)

If anything, the Freeh report is a reminder that such “catastrophic failures” of leadership don’t start and stop with a president, or with two officials charged with perjury (both have denied wrongdoing), or with anyone who didn’t do all they could to get to the bottom of such unspeakable events. It goes all the way to the top, where a board of 32 members has ultimate control for the culture, accountability and leadership of the university.

As I wrote soon after the Sandusky scandal burst onto the national stage, good leadership is not simply a matter of responding well to crises and acting decisively in their aftermath. It is not just about cleaning house or changing personnel. Rather, it is being able to constantly and proactively guide an organization’s culture and leadership so that its values never get too far astray—and such crises never happen in the first place. 

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