Every generation or so, a scandal emerges that not only exposes the flaws of an institution but shakes entire industries to their foundations. For higher education, that scandal should be Penn State.
The unfolding events of the Penn State sports scandal show a major university that has been more interested in protecting itself than in educating students or serving the public. The institutional reckoning must begin and end with the governing board. It is responsible for the actions of university leaders, and its members owe taxpayers and students accountability and transparency.
The alleged sins of omission of football coach Joe Paterno, President Graham Spanier and others when it comes to Penn State’s sports program are grave. And the board must address these tragic claims of child sexual abuse as a first priority.
But a larger question must be asked about governing boards generally: Are they fulfilling their responsibility to the students, families and taxpayers in a broader sense? Can the trustees guarantee that they are adhering to their educational purpose? The clear answer is no.
Edward Shils, distinguished service professor at the University of Chicago, saw the task of the university as the “discovery and teaching of truths about serious and important things.” Could Penn State—or most other American universities for that matter—make such a claim today?
When the most highly paid employee is the football coach, not the president, it’s clear something is awry. When football tickets and fancy student centers are the currency of the day, rather than affordable and quality education, clearly something is awry. When most classes are scheduled only between Tuesday and Thursday and the institutional answer is to build more buildings to accommodate the demand from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.—as Penn State is doing—something is awry.
The health of our society depends directly on the health of our educational institutions, and we’ve got some work to do. In too many ways, the emphasis of higher education in general has become one of reputation building, not values or education. The instinct is to hide problems or pretend they don’t exist rather than face them head on. At too many institutions around the country, we are graduating students who can’t write or think critically and who won’t be able to compete in the global marketplace.
It is that tragedy in education that prompted Professor Richard Arum and the American Council of Trustees and Alumni to write to 10,000 college and university trustees earlier this fall calling on them to act. In his letter, Mr. Arum did not mince words. He noted that “problems of learning in higher education are real, deepening, and demand urgent attention. . . . Institutions that fail to set meaningful expectations, a rigorous curriculum and high standards for their students are putting these students and our country’s future at risk.”
At the end of the day, we must hold boards accountable. Board members are acting in trust for taxpayers and students. If they do not act to ensure quality and integrity, then they are putting our students and our country’s future at risk.
Faculty are typically committed to their disciplines. Administrators regularly focus on the growth of their institutions. It is the governing board’s duty to address these competing priorities. It is the trustees’ duty to ensure that the distinctive educational purpose of the American university remains at the forefront of every other activity.
Every college governing board should interpret Penn State’s troubles as a clear warning of what happens when institutions lose sight of their educational mission.
Ms. Neal is president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.