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Penn State, Paterno and the Hazards of Leadership

Penn State, Paterno and the Hazards of Leadership

By Roger G. Duffet, President, Dakota Wesleyan University, Mitchell, SD

Most major college football programs begin preseason practice this week.  Usually a time of anticipation, a somber tone engulfs summer camps from the Big 10 to the Big 12 to the Southeast Conferences.  This year, college football confronts fundamental moral questions.

Jerry Sandusky, a long-serving, highly respected assistant football coach was convicted of 45 counts of serial child molestation. He awaits an almost certain life sentence in prison. His misdeeds occurred at one of the premier football programs and universities in America – Penn State University.

Louis Freeh, former director of the FBI, was commissioned by the Board of Trustees of Penn State to investigate what went wrong.  Freeh’s report blames Sandusky, first and foremost, for his own egregious behavior.  Yet, legendary head coach Joe Paterno, university president Graham Spanier and other high-level administrators long knew about Sandusky’s crimes but took little corrective action to safeguard Sandusky’s victims.  The most important recommendation from the report calls for an honest examination of the Penn State culture.

Examining the culture is a sound recommendation.  But, culture does not make decisions; people do.  Perhaps a more fruitful endeavor is to discern why thoughtful and caring individuals sometimes make immoral choices.  It is at this point that past wisdom sheds contemporary insight.  Moral philosophers use the term “transgressions” rather than immoral choices and define two types of transgressions.  Transgressions of commission are out-of-bound actions that individuals should not do – like Sandusky’s.  Transgressions of omission are actions that individuals should do but for some reason did not do – like Paterno’s and Spanier’s.

Why did highly respected Penn State leaders, experienced in making tough decisions, succumb to transgressions of omission?  First, Penn State leaders lost sight that image is not always reality.  All want to be well thought of by others.  As a college president, I spend much time trying to boost the image and reputation, and trumpeting the accomplishments of my university.  However, image is reality only some of the time.  Reality frequently dashes our image of how we wish things would be in our family, business, university, church or football team.  No person or institution is as good as their cheerleaders claim, or as bad as critics aver.  Too often we close our eyes and heart to reality in plain sight.  We do this not because we are bad people. Rather, truth challenges our image and ideal.  When truth is ignored and image too stridently preserved, bad results often follow leading to transgressions of omission.  This was the worst mistake Penn State leaders made.  Good people became complicit in actions they themselves abhor.  Why?  It is easier to live in the image than confront the often messy reality.

Second, misplaced loyalty blinded Joe Paterno and is another example of transgression by omission.  Jerry Sandusky worked for Paterno for 30 years.  During that time they won many games, graduated players, supported academics and Paterno himself raised funds for the university’s main library.  Both men enjoyed near adulation among those who knew them best – their players.  Yet, Coach Paterno chose loyalty to someone who both violated children and traduced his friendship. He ignored his own strong moral compass and the vision and values of the university he loved.  Other leaders followed this same path.  The consequences were devastating: repeated child abuse; a once-respected football program under severe NCAA sanctions; and a world-class university with a morally marred reputation.

Last, many have commented on Paterno’s legacy.  Legacy is based on history which encompasses all, not select, chapters of life.  Positive chapters will be written on the best of Joe Paterno, Nittany Lion football and his life of service.  Other chapters will include how he handled this assistant coach.  No chapter cancels or eclipses other chapters.  All make the book of legacy complete.

Maybe Paterno himself put his legacy in fitting context.  In his letter of resignation to the Board of Trustees, written a few months before his death, he said he regretted that he did not do more.  These words are a cautious warning to coaches and leaders.  Do not look the other way because of friendship or personal loyalty; do not choose comfortable image to reality.

Leaders must lead; based not on image or friendship, but on enduring institutional values.