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Examining the Penn State Crisis: What Would We Do?

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Summary of the November 18, 2011 Campus Wide Forum

Childhood abuse victims have come forward to tell their story to a Pennsylvania Grand Jury, which resulted in a report that implicates not only a common perpetrator, but also top university administrators at Penn State University.

While many of us in the higher education community struggle to fathom how people of power, great intellect, and responsibility and commitment to youth can be part of these allegations, the details now unfolding in front of the public at large reveal more than the horrific behavior of one individual , but a breakdown of a system.

Clarkson's goal of the campus wide forum was to convey that everyone has a role in upholding an institution's values as well as the law. How a campus crisis is handled is based on what everyone on campus does or does not do leading up to the crisis. Therefore, the Forum focused not on how Penn State responded once key administrators and its football program came into the public eye, but on the steps and systems that could have addressed the issues when it first surfaced and the reoccurrence of those issues.

What emerged was a conclusion that the law does not work in a vacuum. A decision or action that complies with the law should not be assumed to be a good business decision. Penn State, like Clarkson, is a business. While it may sound trite, what the law allows us to do, or forbids us from doing, is different than what we should do: we often forget that doing what is legal is not necessarily good business either from a moral or economic perspective. Business does not just operate in a legal context, but in a societal context.

The law is only as good as the people behind it. Moral courage is teachable and something we can each learn. The creation of an institution that rewards good decision making and action is attainable. It is not enough to know the law, the university policies and procedures – how we act is our culture.