Hard Lessons from Others’ Mistakes

Shortly after the child sexual abuse scandal at Pennsylvania State University made national news last fall I was prompted to revive the Reflections blog as a place to outline what anyone should do when we see bad things happen, and more generally as a forum to articulate how my thoughts and experiences in life influence the work I do as a researcher, evaluator and writer. After that first essay I decided not to revisit the Penn State scandal publicly lest I appear too focused on a single event. Here I am again. The lessons are too great and too many to skip.

Last week former FBI director Louis Freeh concluded a special investigation of the circumstances surrounding the sexual abuse of children by assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, and administrators’ failure to respond. As I read through the timeline of critical events (beginning in 1969 when Sandusky was hired) I became increasingly distraught, livid, and generally confused about how such flagrant disregard for the law and the well-being of children could recur over more than a decade. The Freeh report highlighted a wadded knot of problems around sexual violence, college access, governance, and leadership.

The first, most obvious lesson comes from the subject of the investigation itself: sexual violence is a major problem that affects everyone, directly or indirectly. The jury at Sandusky’s trial found him guilty on 45 counts of sexual abuse over a 10-year period. Conviction on these charges only includes the 10 documented cases in which survivors were brave enough to come forward and sit in a witness box, starting in 1998 according to records uncovered by Freeh’s team.

In all likelihood there are dozens of other survivors whose very personal and difficult experiences may never be made public. Sandusky himself alluded to such a possibility at least twice. During the 1998 investigation, when interviewed by campus police and a child welfare caseworker Sandusky openly affirmed that he had, in fact, hugged children in the shower, but continued that there was nothing sexual about it, and that he had done it with other children before. Later, during the trial one of his defenses was that an individual does not suddenly become a child sexual predator over night. Precisely. Since the trial ended at least three other alleged survivors of sexual abuse by Sandusky have come forward, each indicating their experiences of violence occurred somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 years ago, before e-mail was available to leave a trail of evidence. For each survivor there are parents, siblings, teachers, friends, or even spouses, ex-partners, or children these years later, whose relationships are shaped by the damage of traumatic events, regardless of where a survivor is in the recovery process that can take a lifetime for some.

The circumstances make this issue one of college access. To promote access and persistence it is imperative that leaders foster a culture of transparency, accountability, honesty, mutual respect, and absolute nonviolence. The organizational culture was just one of many institutional failings cited in the Freeh report. It appears that university administrators built a culture that prioritized the football program more than anything else, even above scholarship and distribution of knowledge. The coaching staff held a tremendous amount of freedom and power. As administrators learned of reported abuse their primary concern was for Sandusky and the reputation of the program, not the survivors of abuse or even the university students. That someone, or many young people, could have been getting hurt was of little concern the Freeh report concluded.

Students who have been impacted by sexual violence sometimes do not process the trauma in a healthy way, which can affect their ability to succeed in school. Some survivors develop coping mechanisms such as alcohol or drug abuse or sexual promiscuity and recklessness, all problems that most university leaders struggle to resolve rather than facilitate. The damage to survivors’ self-esteem and ability to trust others can be severe. I would be concerned that these and other emotional effects of trauma could infringe on survivors’ ability to be fully engaged in campus life and their academic department, experiences that are important to academic success.

It is not that survivors do not succeed academically, but that the after-effects of trauma can present unexpected obstacles for students. The unsafe environment must have had a strangle-hold on college access and persistence among students who directly experienced sexual violence in any context. Under a climate that protected the university reputation above all, I wonder to what extent sexual violence went unnoticed in other areas of campus as well.

Describing a healthy culture is too big of a task for this forum. The very basic place to start, however, I have outlined previously: listen and believe (the survivor), speak up and speak out (immediately), and take action (culture change). The leadership at Penn State failed across the board. Instead of listening to the victims, or even reporting the allegations to public welfare authorities who would have been better equipped to investigate, administrators went to Sandusky with their concerns. Convinced the situation was resolved no one from administration or the athletics department even bothered informing the governing board until after news of the grand jury investigation ran in the local newspaper.

This leads to lessons about organizational governance. How can the governing board have been at fault if trustees were never informed? A colloquial term for this situation is “asleep at the wheel.” This situation occurs when board members have great faith in their executive director and senior leadership team who, in-turn, share glowing reports of well-managed finances, satisfied program participants with great outcomes, high performing staff, committed volunteers, and generally a rosey outlook even when a report might not suggest a pristine situation. In these circumstances no one on the board ever stops to say, “Tell me more. Show me the evidence.”

Frequently, snoozing boards are rudely awakened when something goes badly wrong, such as a senior staff member getting arrested for a decade of sexually abusing program participants on organizational grounds. Dozing boards do not always result in criminal charges. I wonder, for instance, if lack of board oversight may have been a contributing reason for the Hull House accruing some millions of dollars of unsustainable debt and shuttering its doors after 122-years of pathbreaking services. When Oregon nonprofit boards become drowsy they are failing on their legal obligation of “due care.” It is clear from the case of Penn State that when a board fails to exercise due care it also risks failing on its legal obligation of “due obedience.” If you do not know what is going on how can you know whether your organization is in compliance?

The scenario presents clear lessons of leadership, or rather, lack thereof. The work of leaders is uncomfortable and makes them vulnerable. Mandela was incarcerated for 27 years; Gandhi and King were assassinated for taking a stand against injustice. There was little danger that the board and senior staff at Penn State would have put their lives at risk by confronting the situation publicly in 1998, or whenever the first allegations of abuse were actually made. It would, however, have been difficult and embarrassing to do the right thing by taking a public stand against sexual violence. People may have lost their jobs. It may have cost the university in enrollments and alumni support for a period of time.

Abdicating leadership responsibilities entirely, however, has had much graver consequences. As the injustice of sexual violence was allowed to continue the situation has grown from embarrassing to outright disgraceful. Two former senior staff members are under criminal indictment for their role in the events. Additional charges may be filed against other former senior staff as well. Subsequent losses in enrollment and fundraising now will far overshadow what it might have been had the leadership team been forthright from the beginning. In 1998 they would have looked like leaders solving a problem and taking a stand, not shameful and ignorant dupes who lack any sense of empathy or integrity. Doing the right thing, taking a stand for nonviolence and justice can have personal consequences. It is the job of those in positions of power to build a vision, act on the greater good, and stand up for those who have been wronged, even if it means self-sacrifice. Such integrity and ability to act in the name of justice and the greater good is what makes people leaders.

Freeh’s team outlined well over a hundred (I did not count them) specific recommendations spanning Penn State’s governance structure and responsibilities, risk management and campus safety, organizational culture, and a number of other areas, including monitoring change. Certainly not all recommendations are applicable to all organizations, but they are worth reading. Is that something that affects my organization? Do we need to have a similar policy in place? How would that help me to dectect when something is going wrong? As long as humans are involved there is no way to prevent things from going wrong (contrary to the belief held by NTSB). It is possible, however, to learn from the mistakes of others, make changs accordingly, and strive to minimize damage and lead the way in making right the wrongs that surface when problems do occur.

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