Like the rest of you, I’ve watched with horror as more details emerge about Jerry Sandusky’s alleged crimes against children, both on and off the Penn State campus. As a parent, I’ve been sickened by the charges and the grand jury testimony. As a communications specialist, I’ve been appalled at the delayed and often confused response by the Penn State trustees.
Yesterday, the university took the long-overdue step in of appointing someone with no ties to the university, former FBI director Louis Freeh, to lead an internal investigation of the “governance, protocols, decision-making and oversight within the university. While Freeh has reportedly been given free rein to take the investigation in any direction needed, other members of the special committee have many ties to Penn State. Only time will tell if the committee will make the difficult recommendations needed to both move the university past this ugly chapter of its history or get mired in the university politics and finger-pointing.
Interestingly only one student, Rodney Hughes, a doctoral student in higher education, was included on the special committee. More on this later.
As the committee begins its work, there are several issues they can and should consider.
1. This is an opportunity for Penn State to not only address the horrors of the child sexual abuse that happened on its campus, but to take the lead and spearhead a national effort to address childhood abuse. Penn State students have already created a “support wall against child abuse” and are leading prayers and candlelight vigils. University trustees now need to create a system-wide awareness and support mechanism not only for the Sandusky victims but for all child abuse victims. And they should do it before the U. S. Senate mandates it.*
2. Pennsylvania media have reported that one victim has been forced to leave high school after classmates blamed him for Paterno’s firing. This is unacceptable and Penn State should be the first to say so. Continued silence only condones a culture of bullying and implies they support a “blame the victim” mentality.
3. Vera Greene, a junior at Penn State and a guest columnist for The Daily Collegian, addressed the issue of loyalty in a recent column. As she wrote, “we need to take a step back and understand the societal efforts, the natural human tendencies that come into play when a decision [that breaks the bonds of loyalty] has to be made.” Penn State should involve its faculty and staff in creating a forum to discuss the role of loyalty and the conflicts it can create.
4. The state of Pennsylvania is consideration legislation to remove the exemption for state-affiliated universities from Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know law. Penn State shouldn’t wait. It should increase transparency now even though it doesn’t have to. Set the good example.
From a communications standpoint, it has taken Penn State far too long to respond, not just to the general public, but more importantly to students and alumni. While I am not privy to the university’s e-mail communications system, it has been reported that local alumni chapters acknowledged the crisis days after the story broke in the media. As far as I can tell, University President Rodney Erickson, publicly addressed the university family for the first time in a November 21 message. (If I am mistaken, please let me know.)
I understand there are legal concerns that Penn State is grappling with, but it must make every effort to keep alumni, donors, faculty and students apprised of its efforts to address past wrongs and to put new systems into place to ensure this doesn’t happen again. Reach out beyond the university family as well. High school counselors are getting questions. Let them know what is going on and how to answer.
Back to the special committee. While I appreciate the inclusion of a graduate student and former student trustee in the special committee, allow the process to be open to the greater student body. This is a teaching moment. Students should be allowed to audit the process and ask tough questions of their own. Healing takes hard conversation.
Please Mr. Freeh and company, use this special committee to make recommendations on how to move forward, not just to duplicate the efforts of the grand jury or devolve the process into a blame game. Yes, this is the time for scrutinizing what went wrong. But Penn State can regain its national reputation by demonstrating a campus-wide desire to right the wrongs and leading the conversation to make sure other children don’t suffer at the hands of coaches, teachers and other adults they trust.
* The U.S. Senate has scheduled for Dec. 13, the first congressional hearing in the wake of the Penn State case. Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey requested a hearing by a panel of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee to examine how well the nation protects children from abuse and neglect.