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Penn State: What Were You Thinking?

Hey Penn State—was your reputation really this important?

I can’t get that question out of my mind.

Allegations that legendary Penn State emeritus defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky repeatedly sexually assaulted eight young boys on Penn State’s grounds, if true, reveal a pattern of systematic abuse that is more terrible than many people’s very worst fears. At first glance, it seems impossible to explain how Penn State, as an organization, could have chosen to tolerate the inhuman depravity of the abuse that they appear to have condoned. Their complete failure to put a stop to such deplorable behavior may never be satisfactorily explained.

Yet Penn State’s status as a widely-known, prestigious, and proud institution goes a long way toward answering the question that has preoccupied America for days — how can this have happened? Part of the answer stems from the natural, though in this case inexcusable, desire to avoid embarrassment. Another broad fact that should not escape notice is that Penn State is the latest in a long line of proud institutions — both public and private — that proved willing to do almost anything to protect their reputation. Large, proud institutions have too often taken the easy way out, neglecting to do what is right and hiding behind their resources, internal rules, and hierarchies instead. Tragically, Penn State is no exception.

Penn State could have, and absolutely should have, done much more to protect children from alleged sexual abuse at the hands of a distinguished, privileged member of their community. But doing so would have cost them a great deal. Doing the right thing would have brought an intense media frenzy like the one currently descending on Penn State. Their prestige, donations, sponsors, and recruiting would each have suffered. Penn State would have become toxic. Rather than risk such tribulation, Penn State’s administration chose to leave an apparent sexual predator free in their own community by quietly dealing with Sandusky internally. Their priorities were crystal clear.

Penn State is far from the first organization to effect a cover up that protects their reputation while ignoring the interests of a public that deserves better. The Department of Justice continues to be far from forthright regarding Operation Fast and Furious. BP purposely minimized how serious the Deepwater Horizon oil spill was. Fresh allegations of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church continued for years. Watergate proved Nixon worthy of the nickname “Tricky Dick.” Though these comparisons are far from perfect, each of these examples featured a well-known, prestigious institution responding to a horrible mistake by hiding behind its organizational strength and complexity. Each also begged the question: Who knew what, and when?

University officials, including legendary head coach Joe Paterno, knew that Jerry Sandusky was a pervert no later than 2002. By keeping the problem quiet and in-house, each person involved in transmitting information about Sandusky up Penn State’s organizational ladder was ultimately complicit in Penn State’s drive to prioritize maintaining their sterling reputation instead of protecting defenseless children from the risk of unspeakable physical and psychological trauma.

Organizations and the people who staff them will always tend to protect their jobs, their money, their power, and their prestige by avoiding public embarrassment. They will always be tempted to take the path of least resistance and protect their reputations by responding to public wrongdoing by hiding behind their resources, their internal rules, and their hierarchical structures, as Penn State did in this case. By firing Paterno, Penn State sent a clear signal to its remaining employees and the world that protecting children from sexual abuse should have been their priority. What they did was wrong, and they know it. 

Yet firing Paterno and the university president is not enough. Mike McQueary, the man who allegedly witnessed one of Sandusky’s more gruesome abuses in 2002, remains a member of the Penn State coaching staff. Penn State should fire McQueary to clearly establish that, as a condition of continued employment, they expect employees to report allegations of child sexual abuse to the police more actively and persistently than Paterno or McQueary did.  Hopefully, universities throughout the county will mirror this sensible policy, and future tragedy can be averted.

Photo Credit: pennstatelive

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