Trustees | Trusteeship

In Report, Failures Throughout Penn State

NEW YORK TIMES   |  July 12, 2012 by Richard Perez-Pena

Behind the Jerry Sandusky sexual abuse scandal at Penn State lay a series of failures all the way up the university’s chain of command—shortcomings that were the result of an insular and complacent culture in which football was revered, rules were not applied and the balance of power was dangerously out of whack.

In an investigation lasting more than seven months, Louis J. Freeh, a former director of the F.B.I., found a legendary football coach bending his supposed bosses to his will, a university staff that was mostly unaware of its legal duties to report violence and sexual abuse, and a university president who hid problems from the board of trustees and was guided by a fear of bad publicity.

The trustees, who hired Mr. Freeh to explore the university’s failings, fare little better in Mr. Freeh’s formal report on his investigation: they are portrayed as passive overseers, so in thrall to the president and the coach that they failed to demand even the barest displays of accountability.

The failure of top officials to stop Mr. Sandusky, a former football assistant who was convicted last month of sexually assaulting 10 boys, “reveals numerous individual failings, but it also reveals weaknesses of the university’s culture, governance, administration, compliance policies and procedures for protecting children,” Mr. Freeh wrote.

The findings have implications for universities across the country, experts said, particularly those where popular sports programs can take on outsize influence.

“This really should be a clarion call to trustees across the country to ask questions, to demand answers, to insist that the president is responsible to them, not the other way around,” said Anne D. Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. “For too long, the boards have been viewed more as boosters than as legal fiduciaries. And where athletics are involved, I think there is an urgent question whether some institutions have lost touch with their purpose.”

Penn State’s trustees and its new president, Rodney A. Erickson, said they accepted the findings and the blame, and said change was already under way.

“We, the Penn State board of trustees, failed in our obligation to provide proper oversight of the university’s operations,” said one trustee, Kenneth C. Frazier. “Our hearts remain heavy, and we are deeply ashamed.”

But while the trustees were clear about their failings last year, officials continued to tread lightly around the role of previous trustees going back more than a decade, the role of football and the legacy of the former coach Joe Paterno, who died in January.

At a news conference, Mr. Erickson did not answer directly when asked if there had been excessive reverence for the football program. “It’s been an important part of student life; it’s been an important part of alumni life,” he said.

Karen B. Peetz, a trustee for two years and the chairwoman of the board since January, was asked if Mr. Paterno should still be venerated on campus.

“The whole topic of Joe Paterno being honored or not being honored is a very sensitive topic,” she said. “This is something that will continue to be discussed with the entire university community.”

Lawyers for the former university president Graham B. Spanier, who was forced out last fall, released a statement saying that some of Mr. Freeh’s conclusions were “simply not supported by the facts,” and that Mr. Spanier did not know until last year of any child abuse allegation against Sandusky.

But they did not address the point made by Mr. Freeh that when concerns were raised about Mr. Sandusky, in 1998, in 2001 and again last year, Mr. Spanier kept the board in the dark. Mr. Freeh found that the board did not follow the common practice of having the president report routinely on looming problems and legal liabilities.

“Because the board did not demand regular reporting of these risks,” Mr. Freeh wrote, Mr. Spanier and other officials “did not bring up the Sandusky investigations.” Some trustees told Mr. Freeh that the board was little more than a rubber stamp for the administration.

Yet last year, when the first news reports were published of a criminal investigation into Mr. Sandusky, saying that Mr. Spanier and other officials had testified before a grand jury, only one trustee insisted that Mr. Spanier tell the board about it. Officials gave the board a cursory briefing weeks later, with Mr. Spanier assuring them that the problem was minor and the trustees not demanding more, Mr. Freeh reported.

He cited the university’s tendency to prize loyalty, promote people from within and keep them for decades, and “a resistance to seeking outside perspectives” as part of the problem.

The Jeanne Clery Act, enacted in 1990 and named for a student who was raped and murdered at Lehigh University, requires colleges to pull together information on crime from a variety of sources and warn the university community about potential threats. The law holds a wide range of college employees—including coaches—responsible for contributing to that reporting.

But at Penn State, Mr. Freeh found, officials did not know until recently that anyone but the campus police had that obligation, and the police paid little attention to the law until 2007. The first plan for complying with the law was drafted in 2009, but it still had not been adopted when Mr. Sandusky’s case exploded into public view in November.

The football program, Mr. Freeh reported, chose not to participate in most of the university’s efforts to train people in recognizing and reporting violence and sexual abuse.

“Unfortunately, there are other universities like this, but it’s fewer than in the past, and I think the publicity around this case is helping change things,” said Alison Kiss, executive director of the Clery Center for Security on Campus, founded by Jeanne Clery’s parents.

“In our experience, when an athlete or coach is involved, many times it does get treated differently,” she said. “We have to change that culture.”

A Pennsylvania law requires certain officials to report suspected child abuse to state agencies. A former Penn State senior vice president, Gary Schultz, and Athletic Director Tim Curley face criminal charges under that statute, along with charges of perjury.

The episode involved occurred in 2001, when a graduate assistant coach, Mike McQueary, reported that Mr. Sandusky had sexually assaulted a boy in a locker room shower. Whether or not Mr. Spanier understood the nature of the charge, e-mails uncovered by Mr. Freeh show that Mr. Spanier, Mr. Schultz and Mr. Curley agreed to report the episode to the state child welfare agency.

But they did not. Mr. Curley suggested a different approach after “talking it over with Joe” Paterno. Mr. Freeh quoted an unnamed senior official as calling Mr. Curley the “errand boy” of Mr. Paterno.

The impression that Mr. Paterno had more power than the officials ostensibly above him is not new. In 2004, Mr. Spanier and Mr. Curley—who, in theory, could fire the coach at will—told Mr. Paterno he should retire; Mr. Paterno refused to go, and that ended the discussion.


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