Penn State: when serial mis/nonfeasance is malfeasance.

To review: as everyone has observed, a list of individuals (not yet complete, certainly) acted and passived criminally and/or despicably.  And it is equally true that not all of Paterno’s or even Spanier’s career behavior has been despicable or even mediocre; indeed, adding to the dimensions of the tragedy, they did a lot of good even discounting anything involving a football.  As lots of commentators have observed, much of the rot here is traceable to PSU’s having  completely lost its grip on the appropriate relationships between playing the game and winning every game; between a game and a university; and between a university (especially a big university that’s the main industry in a small college town) and civil society, not to mention the relationship between sports and sportsmanship/leadership/teamwork.

Some of the debate has the implicit undertone that what the enablers and concealers did was bad because in the end it caused much more damage to the program than lancing the boil at the time would have.  This is deeply pernicious, of course, because it just indicates extra coats of whiting on the sepulchre for next time.  This episode would, if possible, have been even worse if the damage had been permanently limited to secret injury to Sandusky’s victims. Certainly a lot of victims were sacrificed during a decade of dissembling virtue.

The legalistic defenses of these people that they did what the law requires, and the inability of anyone to borrow a whistle from the refs and blow it, raise a more general, less discussed, and I believe more devastating criticism of Paterno and his spaniel, and also of the trustees: they managed an enterprise for decades in which everyone who mattered believed that their duties were to the reputation (and game record) of the institution – that looking good was more important than doing bad. This malfeasance is not traceable to specific acts; indeed it is misfeasance, a million acts of omission,  when they failed to signal, and find a way to demonstrate, and confirm receipt of the signal, that the university expects its people to do the right thing even when it causes bad press, and even when it hurts their friends, and even at some cost to themselves.

What has poisoned Penn State is not that most people are not heroes, and are intimidated by their environment’s symbols and comfort-seeking routines: you go to life with the people you have, not the ideal people you wish you had.  It is that its leadership serially flubbed a flat, incontrovertible duty of leadership to know (i) that s..t happens, and (ii) that  ordinary people are afraid to deal with it without help.  It is therefore a flat duty, also flubbed, to affirmatively and aggressively give those people tangible, costly, public, action-centered reassurance that the institution’s determination to protect and admire them when they step up is bigger than the football team’s record (yes, and the biochemistry department’s desire for a breakthrough that a batch of experimental results don’t support).

The whole gang of administrators, boosters, coaches, and trustees didn’t take care of their own people (never mind the kids) in the worst way, by undermining their courage and their sense of right and wrong.  When you don’t take care of your people for two years, you should lose your job: I think twenty is far past the Mendoza line, and the give-em-a-break line.

The whole gang.


Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

24 thoughts on “Penn State: when serial mis/nonfeasance is malfeasance.”

  1. “… Paterno and his spaniel…”

    Are thinking of one spaniel in particular? It seems to me that he had a kennel full of spaniels.

    1. Gotit. I hadn’t retained the former-President’s name. Spaniel is definitely a more accurate assessment.

  2. Much as I dislike big-time college sports, I’m not sure if what happened is that out of the ordinary. The impulse to sweep things under the rug exists in all kinds of organizations. It’s the horror of the crime that was covered up that’s significant. The fame of the coach and the school helps make this news, but I’m not sure if it was that important in motivating the crime.

    Paterno’s reputation as a moral paragon among coaches makes this story ironic, but the cowardice of “comfort-seeking routines” is a common moral danger. This could have happened at the University of Miami. This could have happened at some obscure Division III school. Any coach in Paterno’s place would see how awful it would be to have it come out that a prominent member of the staff was a child molester. Any administrator would see that the school’s reputation would be hurt by an investigation and prosecution. I’d like to think that most would also recognize the damage done to raped children. I think that many would have done the right thing.

    Paterno & co’s fault was not that they betrayed the moral spirit of Penn State. It was that they betrayed a young boy who was raped, and all the boys who were raped by Sandusky after they’d covered up his crime.

  3. One thing I have always admired about the high-school basketball I watched in the early 1970s was the custom that, when a player knew he had fouled another, he raised his hand to acknowledge the foul — even when the refs didn’t whistle first.

    Honesty about one’s mistakes and failings is one of the hardest virtues to attain.
    If “sportsmanship” means anything at all, this should be a big part of the definition.

  4. No, they could have done a lot more to deter Sandusky without threatening to expose the whole thing — in the name of protecting the university. They did just enough to protect the school, or thought they had, and that is evidence of pure indifference to the children and the crime and a perverse and criminal loyalty to a colleague.

  5. From outside but fairly close to the scene I have to agree with Brainz and with your graf on the general duties of leadership. What was reported to university officials should have prompted them to go outside the university. But I’d expand the scope of what Brainz points to: I see it as a failure not limited to one institution or one endeavor but a failure of an entire style and culture of institutional management manifesting in this particular instance. University administrators learned this style not only from the Harvard school of ed admin but from the corporate world. To me, what happened here is no different in principle from what happened on Wall Street, in housing finance, in the practice of shipping jobs overseas while paying no attention to where consumers are supposed to get the money that’s needed to underpin a consumer society and economy. “You’ve lost perspective” was a key tagline in Galactica and is equally applicable to most of the culture of corporate management in America.

    FWIW, though, I do want to make two additional points. First, I don’t agree that Spanier’s errors are rooted in being a kept creature of Paterno. That would be the AD, not Spanier. By report, Paterno effectively had a direct line to the trustees, who trusted, burnished, and basked in his reputation too much. They backed him against Spanier in around 2004, again according to wide report about an attempt to get him to retire, and ignored signs emerging at about that time that should have set off alarm bells– in particular, nepotism favoring one of his sons, which the university should have forbidden. Sometime in that span between the late 90s and about 2008 I think Paterno reached a point where he could no longer distinguish his institutional role from himself and his personal and family ambitions, and he has desperately needed a friend who could tell him that. But it seems a sure thing that almost no non-player who’s met him over the past 45 years or more has been truly a friend; much more, they’ve been people wanting to glow in the reflection of his glory. Unfortunately that appears to include members of his family. It only partly included Spanier, who liked the glow but desperately wanted Paterno retired.

    Where I think of Spanier as being particularly responsible is pretty much along the lines you suggest, in fostering an atmosphere that discouraged attention to anything that might be less than immediately boosterish, and in not having the facility of recognizing at least some situations that needed his attention even when they were being papered over for him. This would describe most of corporate America as well as university administrations. In that kind of atmosphere, the AD and business vp would have felt encouraged to “solve” the problem at their level (as I presume Paterno and their own inclinations were also urging them, one way or another), and to present it to him, if he asked why he was signing this particular paper, as something only slightly out of routine that they’d already dealt with.

    I think Spanier’s testimony was probably honest– he hadn’t been told what McQueary reported. He’d been insulated from it by the AD and VP, who were protecting an athletic operation he really had no active authority over, and little support among the trustees for gaining any authority. If he did know or have suspicions, he hadn’t been able to figure out a way to maneuver the board into allowing any action. I have been no supporter or fan of Spanier, who well before this mess I thought had stayed on about eight or ten years too long for the good of the institution, but I do have to recognize the very difficult position he was in politically wrt to the board and university athletics. In this case I fault him for fostering the administrative culture that encouraged what was done about those reported cases, and for apparently not having the nose for trouble that someone in his position needed.

    The second point I think needs making is that we still don’t know what really happened at these reported contacts between Sandusky and the victims. The grand jury report is written to be very persuasive and has a couple of instances where multiple parties report on the same event, which gives the whole document a strong air of credibility. But it is a prosecuting document. In the last decade lots of questions have been raised about victim testimony, on which the bulk of the report is based. In the most inflammatory instance, the one that’s been at the center of events, it tells us what McQueary believes he saw, and what he told the grand jury he related to Paterno the next day. Paterno has been very careful in his testimony and over the last week to say that McQueary didn’t tell him details at the time. That’s transparently in his interest to say. At the same time, McQueary may have been as direct as he told the grand jury he was, or he may have thought he was being direct but circumlocuted instead, thinking he was telling Paterno enough that he would understand, or he may have purposely circumlocuted to spare Paterno’s feelings, or he may have just said much less than he told the grand jury he said. We all know of situations where the picture we have in our minds is vivid and our feelings are urgent but what we say is neither. And pace McQueary, we don’t know that what he thought he saw in the shower was what actually happened. The logistics may be a puzzle.

    What I think we can conclude for sure is that Sandusky was naked in the showers with young underprivileged and therefore vulnerable and manipulable boys on several occasions, and that he made sure there was physical contact between them. The janitor may be right that it was sexual contact. That’s enough information to start investigating and to be sure he was kept away from kids, and that it didn’t happen that way is the university’s shame. It should have been done.

    I’m not saying this to get anyone off the hook here. Spanier’s dismissal was justly merited (and if he was present at the board meeting, as he was entitled to be, he concurred in the unanimous decision), and Paterno’s too, probably, as the only way the board could wrest back authority over athletics that it had pissed away. And I agree with You Don’t Say. But I am disturbed that the grand jury report is being taken as gospel, without regard to anyone’s likely motives, or possibility of honest error, or known issues with victim testimony. It’s bad enough given what we really do know.

    1. I’m not sure about the governing structure of Penn State, but at every school I’m familiar with the President/Chancellor has an ex officio seat on the Board. He would not have a vote.

      Also, in matters of personnel decisions most boards go into “executive session” (close the meeting to the public). Spanier would not likely have been invited into such a session. Personally, I think going into executive session on this wasn’t the most politically adroit move. On the other hand, if the trustees would not speak openly in an open meeting then the executive session was the only way.

      1. Contrary to what people tend to think, and to what I thought myself until I was forced to check it in Robert, ex officio members actually do have votes (section 49). The PSU board has five ex officios including the university president, the governor, and three cabinet secretaries. Spanier was the board’s secretary. Ex officios don’t always have the same obligation to attend meetings (the university president does because of employee status), but when they’re there they can definitely vote, and if they don’t I think it would have to be recorded as an abstention or as present but not voting.

        I would be pretty sure that all board meetings this week have been executive sessions and that the only public discussion was at press conferences. Whether Spanier was there in either of his capacities, and whether any of the discussion was minuted, I don’t know, but the votes were recorded. The “if” in my hypothetical was because I don’t know whether he was there for that vote (probably not since the personnel matter was about him and that would be the normal expectation, but I don’t know for sure– I have to assume he was taking an active role in everything prior to that discussion and I don’t know of any explicit rule forbidding him from staying for the discussion and vote). But I do know the vote was unanimous.

  6. “It is that its leadership serially flubbed a flat, incontrovertible duty of leadership to know (i) that s..t happens, and (ii) that ordinary people are afraid to deal with it without help. It is therefore a flat duty, also flubbed, to affirmatively and aggressively give those people tangible, costly, public, action-centered reassurance that the institution’s determination to protect and admire them when they step up is bigger ”

    cf Obama’s striking protection (hah) of whistle-blowers in the US government, not least Bradley Manning…

  7. There were ample signs that George Huguely was a disaster waiting to happen. Yet, Dom Starsia, Craig Littlepage, and Teresa Sullivan all still have their jobs. Can someone explain why the two situations are meaningfully different.

  8. The whole gang of administrators, boosters, coaches, and trustees didn’t take care of their own people (never mind the kids) in the worst way….

    Sounds like a libertarian utopia. And the bit about men and boys naked in a shower? I’m sure some of the libertarian commenters here could make a strong argument for such freedoms.

  9. Tax the rich: No, a libertarian utopia would be one where people protected and showed solidarity with each other by goodwill and custom, instead of fobbing the responsibility off to some stinking climber of greasy poles. What you describe would be a libertarian hell: people getting Authority off their backs, only to choose the same or worse evils independently and on purpose. Damnation indeed!

    Sick institutions, inhuman priorities, legalistic pusillanimity, and failed fellowship are none of them improved by putting either a State or a private hat on them.

    1. Sick institutions, inhuman priorities, legalistic pusillanimity, and failed fellowship are none of them improved by putting either a State or a private hat on them.

      Yes. No sick institutions please. We the people can handle this on our own. No State. No legal pusillanimity. No hedge funding justice. Or as Michelle put: “we’ll beat him to a pulp”.
      Onward libertarianism!

      1. No worship of institutions that denies the possibility that they might be sick. No sacrificing the mere no-count individual to the beworshipped collective. No rules-lawyering excuses for turning a blind eye to rank abuse, because on some self-serving interpretation one wasn’t strictly obliged to. No deciding that somebody who isn’t strong enough to compel our help, isn’t important enough to receive it. Hence, no behaviour like Penn State’s on every count, nor other government offshoots – nor equally sick corporate actors in the commercial or voluntary sectors, either. Is that clear enough for you?

        Unless a lot of people are willing to stand up for that, no, libertarianism will not work.

        And nor will the collectivist system under which this vileness actually took place. Dinging individualism is not much of a response to the systematic abuse of vulnerable individuals under a dysfunctional authority. I don’t see how there is any political lesson in this abomination beyond, “If people were readier to give a pass to uncommonly evil behaviour for a supposed common good, there would be less horror in the world.”

        That’s a pretty weak argument for my philosophy. It’s no argument at all for yours.

        I think any further responses from me would be taking this thread just too far out on a tangent, so the last word is yours if you want it.

        1. Me: “If people were readier to give a pass to uncommonly evil behaviour for a supposed common good, there would be less horror in the world.”

          Less ready, damn it! Less ready!

          Make hay of my idiot typo, who will.

        2. Is that clear enough for you?

          As clear as lofty trumpery can be…
          Or if you will, the tortured song of an Ayn Rand hero extolling the captured and conscripted individual to some smoky noble end.

          In the real world we have Sanduskys. We need institutions to try them fairly and punish them justly. In this country human beings came voluntarily together to create some institutions to that end. Understanding all this is bit like growing up and getting a job. Yes the institutions of government crimp everyone’s life here and there. But real cowboys accept the light reins, understand their purpose, and get to work builder a better future for everyone. I note with affection that Steve Jobs didn’t go around complaining about being constrained by a “beworshipped collective”. He didn’t agonize about “failed fellowship” and “sick institutions” holding him back. He built magnificent stuff within the gentle constraints of his time. Et tu libertarian?

          PS. Thanks for letting me have the final word. As you can see, I killed it.

  10. While the behavior at Penn State was reprehensible (what was anyone thinking in allowing Sandusky continued access to the facilities?), and while I am continually disgusted at the corrupting influence of $millions in D1 college sports and never surprised at the outcomes that result, I do find the rush to judgement in this case out of line. Though convicted in the court of public opinion, Sandusky has yet to get his day in court, as Altoid eloquently pointed out. Until he does, there is a certain presumption of innocence that inures to him and to all the miscreants that protected him.

    The correct route for the Board would have been to suspend Paterno and everyone else involved pending outcome of the case. What if, as in the Duke lacrosse fiasco, the story turned out to be not true? That rush to judgement has rightfully cost that University a lot of money.

    Consider that next year, it will be exactly as if nothing had happened in Happy Valley. They will hire a big name head coach like Urban Meyer for big money to replace Paterno, and the program will go on with this episode neatly swept under the rug, and eventually this will be just a lousy coda for Joe Pa’s “otherwise spotless” career. It will be like Woody Hayes, Adolph Rupp and all the rest – so he punched a few players, so he wouldn’t recruit black kids, so what, he was a great coach who ran a great program, blah, blah, blah. It will be this way in the D1 revenue sports as long as the money rolls in and the alumni identify the school’s rep with on-the-field- success.

  11. @Brainz: it almost certainly has happened at any number of obscure schools. And abuse of young women by stars (faculty or student) in famous sports programs goes almost without comment. I think it’s almost entirely the contract with Paterno’s ostensible rectitude that got this into the national media.

  12. Please note that burnspbesq is a Brett-level troll, in fact he’s an ‘sd’ level troll (for those who remember sd here) over on Balloon-Juice.

    1. I see that my question makes you uncomfortable. As it should, for there is no good answer. Lacking a good answer, you immediately go ad hominem. Typical, and pathetic.

  13. Redwave, I highly doubt that Urban Meyer would want to step into this situation now, given that (a) the program is going to be tarred for decades, which harms recruiting; and(b) the University is going to be hyper-vigilant, and there’s going to be far more oversight of the program — which is as it should be, but there are very few big-time coaches who would willingly subject themselves to that on a daily basis. Plus, it’s in the middle of freakin’ nowhere. No, what PSU is going to do is bring in someone with a squeaky-clean reputation who won’t mind the extra oversight, someone who will be well-known enough to soothe the egos of the big donors, but not so well-known that he’d be able to set up another little fiefdom (at least not right away).

    So there’s only one logical choice — Tyrone Willingham.

    1. We’ll see. Not sure you understand the PSU culture. They are Big Ten now – not about to retreat to small time. As for recruiting, the kids recruit themselves. That’s why an 80 something Joe Pa never had a recruiting problem. Every PA prospect west of Lancaster wants to play for PSU.

      As for how vigilant the university is going to be, I’ll believe that when I see it. Alumni donations and ticket sales call the tune.

      1. I think I do understand the PSU culture quite well, and I think you lay out exactly why they’re going to have a problem in the future: “The kids recruit themselves . . . Every PA prospect west of Lancaster wants to play for PSU.” You honestly don’t see that changing? What you’re saying is that their recruiting was a by-product of their reputation, not of aggressive recruiting by the head coach . . . but now that reputation is gone, and it’s not coming back any time soon. They’re not going to retreat to the small time, but they’re not going to attract “a big name head coach like Urban Meyer.” And FWIW, that’s the best route for them to take. They shouldn’t go for the big name, because big names got them in this predicament.

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