Just when you think things couldn’t possible get any worse for Penn State they do. The latest repercussion from the Jerry Sandusky scandal to hit the university is a warning from the Middle States Commission on Higher Education that the institution’s academic accreditation is at risk. Loss of that accreditation, which would make Penn State students ineligible for federal aid, would be devastating.
The commission has been quite clear that its review of Penn State has nothing to do with academics and everything to do about how the university has handled the Sandusky matter. The Harrisburg Patriot-News quotes Penn State’s vice provost for academic affairs as confirming the commission is “focusing on governance, integrity and financial issues related to information in the Freeh report and other items related to our current situation.” In other words, the commission is not convinced Penn State has in fact cleaned up its act and has made the governance, administrative and cultural changes necessary to prevent problems from arising in the future.
And they have reason to worry. The fact is Penn State has focused more on finding scapegoats than on making needed reforms. Gimmicks such as the removal of Joe Paterno’s statue were designed for symbolic purposes to give the illusion of change. But problems at the formerly Happy Valley run far deeper than the institution’s failure to properly deal with Jerry Sandusky. Penn State has a deeply ingrained cultural governance problem that has not been resolved. That problem is the Penn State University Board of Trustees and its failure to adequately engage in governing the institution. All too much power has been delegated by the board to the university president, making the trustees themselves complicit in creating the culture that allowed the Sandusky saga to occur.
Inexplicably, although the PSU board knew about the grand jury investigation into Sandusky’s behavior months before indictments were handed down, adequate steps were not taken internally to deal with the issue. Worse, when the lion crap hit the fan, the board and administration were caught completely off-guard and without a plan in place. The board made sure others paid the price, firing former President Graham Spanier and football coach Joe Paterno. But somehow they felt the buck stopped there.
But the ultimate authority is the board of trustees and that is where the buck truly stops. And events of recent days have shown the culture has not changed. When the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) hit Penn State with draconian sanctions the decision to accept the punishment was made not by the board, but by President Rodney Erickson. When some board members suggested it should be a board decision, the majority ducked the issue and like sheeple allowed the decision to stand.
In the process the board of trustees has created an entire new class of victims. By their default agreement to the NCAA sanctions the trustees have deprived student athletes of future scholarships, and have ensured that young men who had nothing whatsoever to do with the Sandusky scandal will be penalized by not having the opportunity to showcase their talents in major bowl games. In short, not only did the board fail Jerry Sandusky’s victims by their detached approach to governance, they are failing current and future students as well.
Both the NCAA and the Middle States Commission on Higher Education have Penn State under the microscope because they clearly see the university’s system of governance is broken. Worse, its handling of the sanctions issue shows that structural change has not, is not, and likely will not occur.
Only one course of action remains to restore credibility to Penn State University. That is for all members of the board of trustees, except for those elected this past summer and those serving by statute, to resign. The board held Graham Spanier and Joe Paterno responsible, now they must understand that they too bear responsibility for the culture that allowed Sandusky to ply his evil trade and for the good of the institution also need to go.
The fact of the matter is the buck does stop with them. The selection of a new president from within the walls of fortress Penn State, the continued delegation of major decisions to that president, and the alarm bells being sounded by outside organizations are proof positive that this board of trustees is incapable of reforming itself.
The time has come for the last shoe in this sordid saga to drop. A new board of trustees is necessary for Penn State to regain its credibility, its reputation, and to once again take its place among the ranks of America’s great educational institutions.
(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org)