Penn State was long considered as the gold standard among other higher education institutions across the country in terms of academics and doing thing right way. However, when evidence came to light about a potential molestation cover-up among current and former members of the football coaching staff and possibly high-level administrators at the University, the journey into unchartered territory of managing an institution in the face of serious crisis resulted in Penn State becoming criticized from all angles both for its initial inaction and then for its hasty actions while under pressure and scrutiny from internal and external constituents. This post will analyze the actions that unfolded at Penn State following the Sandusky Scandal and compare various component of the leadership’s handling with the nine propositions outlined in Christensen& Kohls article Ethical decision making in time of organizational crisis (2003).
Fifty blog posts could be dedicated to discussing Penn State’s management of the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State in 2011 and depending on your perspective and proximity to the actual facts of how things unfolded, you may feel that some actions were ethical and others were unethical. This blog will not weigh in on the degree of ethics that each decision possessed; it will however look at the nine propositions raised by Christensen’s theoretical framework that posits that particular observations tend to be consistent when it comes to observing leadership decisions under times of distress or crisis. As with any theory, this one is relative and it does not seek to imply an absolute truth for how all processes will unfold during periods of crisis. There will always exist exceptions to the rules and it may be argued that one or more of the proposition may not be consistent with Christensen’s model. This article will look at each proposition and weigh in on how strongly they were observed in Penn State’s management during the scandal.
For full disclosure, I worked at Penn State, University Park from 2010 through 2015 in Health Promotion and Student Conduct. My wife was also the Director of the newly formed Parents Program and was in constant communication with parents, alumni, and senior administration while the crisis unfolded. Through the more than six thousand emails she received in the aftermath, she was able to track perspectives and information from both internal and external constituents.
In Fall 2011, allegations surrounding multiple incidents of child sex abuse by Jerry Sandusky, a former member of the football coaching staff, surfaced and loomed over the University. Also implicated were high level University officials including President Graham Spanier and Athletic Director Tim Curley. Details from the indictments painted a picture where Sandusky would groom his victims at his local charity organization and then invite the children to events at the stadium and clinics. Further information raised concern about how much the University knew about Sandusky’s behaviors and whether the issue was not reported properly by Joe Paterno, the head football coach, as well as Curley and Spanier when they may have had an obligation to do so.
Despite the growing public demand for a response and an increasing presence of the national media, University administration was silent during the initial days following the report and held closed door meetings with the Board of Trustees. A few days after the story broke, Graham Spanier resigned his position as President while Curley and Paterno were both terminated. Jerry Sandusky was later convicted of 45 counts of sexual abuse and was sentenced to 30-60 years in prison.
Let us now look at these events through the lens of the nine propositions offered by Christensen. Some propositions have been combined and analyzed together.
Proposition 1: Ethical decision making will tend to decrease under conditions of crisis.
Proposition 2: Ethical decision making under conditions of crisis decreases as the amount of individual and/or organizational stress experienced increases.
As Christensen & Kohls (2003) states, “the effects of stress, both psychological and organizational, reduce the ability of the organization to make effective use of available information and resources, restrict the type and amount of information that is available, limit the cognitive abilities of individual decision makers, and have a negative impact on organizational culture and the ability of people within the organization to interpret the events surrounding it. Stress clearly affects decision making in ways that reduce consideration of stakeholder interests. As the focus of attention turns inward, the decision maker may pay less attention to less salient stakeholders in both the internal and external environments, Therefore, as levels of stress increase, it is likely that decision makers will attend less to the broad array of stakeholders and will not accord intrinsic value to all stakeholders.”
Reports about the scandal were coming in from all directions and the administration and Board of Trustees were placed in a position of managing a crisis unlike any they or any University had experienced before. Demands for answers and action grew by the day and because of the nature of the allegations, child sex abuse, nonresponse was deemed publicly as the University enabling, condoning, or covering up the events in order to protect its reputation. The administration needed to act fast in order to quell the rising wave of contempt that was pounding on the Old Main doors. The Board of Trustees did not feel they had the time to speak to everybody and get all of the facts before acting and moved only with the partial information they were able to gather at the time.
This is evident through the testimony of Mr. Kenneth Frazier, a member of the Board of Trustees who later resigned his seat. Frazier testified “Just as I said in the case of Mr. Curley, my initial feeling was, when I first heard about this, that the facts had not been established and we needed to be careful to make sure we understood the facts. As I was in — in that 48-hour time period read the grand jury presentment, I reached the conclusion that given what had become public about the issues leading up to the presentment and given what was said in the presentment itself about Coach Paterno’s testimony and about what the graduate student said to Coach Paterno, I felt that it would not send the right message if Coach Paterno was able to lead the football team out onto the field of play under those circumstances. So I didn’t change my mind on the question of whether we had established all the key facts that related to Coach Paterno’s involvement and/or responsibility. But I had reached the conclusion that, from the standpoint of what the University’s values would be interpreted to be by the broader public, that what was known was sufficiently serious as it relates to child sexual abuse that it would send the wrong message about our values as a University if Coach Paterno were allowed to coach as though none of this had ever happened.”
Although likely the correct interpretation of how the public would react, this is still not an informed response but outside stakeholders were never consulted to affirm this assumption. Frazier, like many other members of the Board of Trustees, used his discretion, or the legitimate right to make choices based on one’s authoritative assessment of a situation (Feldman, 1992) to make the decision to either deliver an ultimatum to Spanier as well as rule on a course of action for Curley and Paterno. They knew that they would not be able to completely eliminate the problem but they attempted to mitigate the damage as much as possible by acting swiftly. Although they may have collectively felt they were acting in the best interests of the University and for the greater good, they did by definition according to the proposition, act unethically by consulting with all relevant stakeholders and considering their perspectives.
Proposition 3: There will be no difference between the effects of a single crisis event or an ongoing crisis situation on ethical decision-making.
Proposition 9: When crisis leads to unethical decision-making, it is frequently followed by further unethical decision making.
Several events following the initial removal of Spanier, Curely, and Paterno helped sustain the passion and anger surrounding the University’s handling of the scandal. An independent investigator was hired to provide a review of the information and offer recommendations to the University for how to improve its compliance deficiencies. The University elected to accept the report and all of the recommendations outlined therein. The NCAA inserted itself into the situation and sanctioned the University with a multi-year post-season ban, fine, and reduction in scholarships. The University elected to accept the sanctions immediately and begin the process of healing and reparation. Questions about landmarks on campus bearing the names of those directly involved in the scandal, including the Paterno Library, a child daycare bearing the name of Vice President Gary Schultz, and a statue of Paterno outside Beaver Stadium, were hotly debated. The childcare center was renamed and the statue was eventually relocated but the library name has remained unchanged. The landmarks were considered sources of divisiveness and as long as they endured then true healing may not take place. The library was the exception because that represented the Paterno family commitment to giving back to the entire Penn State community.
Some may argue that the same unilateral decision-making that led to the firings persisted in these decisions as well. Although Board of Trustee meetings were open to the public and opportunities for public comment were made available, the decisions to act still seemingly took place despite input from external constituents. Realistically, it would not be possible to identify one solution or course of action that would satisfy all stakeholders. From an outside perspective, it would appear that the administration did not consider the viewpoints from external stakeholders and alumni. This is in fact not the case as my wife was able to personally inform the administration with the over six thousand emails and messages she personally received in her role as Director of Parents Program following each stage of the events. When the scandal first broke, all administrators were in a position of not knowing how to handle the situation so all individual at the Director level, my wife included, were instructed not to say anything until more information was gathered. This placed her in the spotlight as well because people would email the Parents Program with their opinion and rage and only receive a standard automatic response and nothing else in return, as directed by her supervisors.
She did however import every message into a spreadsheet and organized them by those opposed and in favor of the actions, the constituents they represent (alumna, external public, media, students, etc.), and by theme of the message. What she found after analyzing the messages is that responses were surprising close to being split 50/50 in terms of being either in favor versus opposed to the actions taken. These responses were also spilt among people internal to Penn State and those who were immersed in the culture for generations. She relayed this information to the administration and it was considered by the University President and Board of Trustees when they were deciding how to act on all of the above issues and more. So the actions of the leadership were guided by multiple perspectives although this information was not public knowledge. Thus the degree of ethical leadership under crisis is arguably difficult to assess in this model because one can never be completely confident in the amount of information that is considered behind the scenes. Many believe the University actions were made in haste and uninformed and my wife and I can personally attest that is not the case.
Proposition 4: Crises with technical/economic, unusual, or internal origins will result in less unethical decision making than will crises with human/social, normal, or external origins.
This proposition is not supported in this case. The Sandusky scandal drove a wooden stake through the heart of a community that identified its existence with the pristine and gold-standard vision that Penn State represented. The fact that icons within the community that were considered family would be possible of acting in the way they did and letting down the community who trusted them implicitly was likely the biggest travesty in the entire episode. There was outside criticism and media came from all corners of the world to report on the story, but the story continued to persist within the Penn State community long after the last news truck vacated College Avenue. There sheer size and scope of the Penn State community made consulting all of the stakeholders realistically impossible and thus their actions could be considered unethical. I am unsure how any scandal with external origins could have had the same impact as this scandal had on Penn State.
Proposition 5: Ethical decision making in organizations declines as crisis aspects-magnitude of consequences, probability of effect, time urgency, and uncertainty-increase in degree.
Time has passed, faces in the administration and Board of Trustees have changed, and attention has shifted to other issues. Thus the stress of having to deal with the daily onslaught of issues has subsided and with it the need to make decisions without the affordance of time. As more time is granted and more resources are dedicated to make informed and comprehensive decisions about issues, the probability of making ethical decisions has increased tremendously. More people are involved in the discussion (for better or worse, they are involved) so this means more viewpoints will be considered before acting. This proposition is supported in this example.
Proposition 6: Individuals who normally attend to environment, have less need for structure, are time urgent, are action oriented, perceive events as opportunities, and are able to rethink perceptions will have lower levels of stress and be more likely to make ethical decisions during crisis.
Proposition 7: Individuals at higher stages of cognitive moral development are more likely to make ethical decisions in crisis situations.
I would argue that in this case, these propositions are not supported. Looking at the make-up of the Board of Trustees and University administration, people who hold the highest degrees in multiple academic and practical fields, sit in ownership and leadership positions for their companies, and possess external perspective and life experience were the individuals in the position of determining how best to proceed in light of the scandal. These are people who have been tested in the past and have learned to manage volatile situations as calmly and effectively as possible. While many were well qualified and likely highly developed morally, like the vast majority of every leadership team at every other university in the country, NONE of them had ever needed to navigate the dynamics surrounding the Sandusky scandal. It is very easy to say “Why didn’t you act this way or that?” but until you are in the position of having to decide and act with the ultimate wisdom of Solomon, you never know how you will respond and it can be argued that connecting a decision under crisis with a person’s cognitive moral development is shortsighted.
The thousands of students I have met with for drug and alcohol incidents or the groups I meet with surrounding Bystander Intervention after group or event violations all say the same thing. I ask them to consider if they would step in and help out a friend if they were in need and they all say yes. But when the time came for them to do so, none of them did. Why? It is not because they didn’t possess good moral fiber but rather than they had never been placed in a situation where they needed to act. Another example was a case I managed involved a Penn State student who fell out of balcony onto the street while at a party in the apartment. The girl thankfully lived and when I spoke to students identified as being involved the conversation revolved around their actions. I posed the same question…would you reach out to help a person in need. They all said yes. However, the videotape that I acquired of the event from the hallway of the apartment showed three groups of people reacting after the girl fell. One group went down to the street to help the girl, one group left the apartment and scene entirely, and the third group took the alcohol that was in the apartment and relocated it to the apartment next door. All of these students were the same that said they would help, but during a time of crisis they reacted differently than they would have hoped. These are examples of how this proposition is idealistic but may not be realistic in the face of a crisis because people act differently in times of high stress.
Proposition 8: Organizations characterized by slack resources, a flexible organizational structure, strong culture, strong social relationships, good coping strategies, and crisis planning will make fewer unethical decisions during crises.
This proposition may be supported by this example. I am not privy to the slack resources available to handle this type of crisis but knowing of the need to tighten the reigns on spending and in times of restructuring the organization in order to streamline the services we provide, I cannot imagine there is much in reserve for a rainy day or random scandal that comes to light. There likely was an absence of crisis planning and discussion about coping with disasters. The Board of Trustees and University administration were often at odds due to differences in the vision for the institution and those groups are often a cornucopia of dynamic and strong personalities and leadership styles. If there was a lack of quality discussion, strategic planning, and slack resources then it was a perfect storm that could have nurtured unethical decision-making in the wake of a crisis.
Again, no theory can be applied universally and in many cases, some components can be rejected while other are supported depending on the information available. The Christensen and Kohls model (2003) includes many propositions that can hold true in the case of the Sandusky child abuse scandal at Penn State, but there are elements that may not hold water due to the unique dynamics of the situation. Every crisis will be unique and every reaction will vary depending on the person experiencing it and who has to mitigate the problem. In a perfect world, all crises will be able to follow a strict formula in order to help the organization navigate the difficult waters to come out as unscathed as possible. But I guess in a perfect world there wouldn’t be crises to begin with. So the only thing we can all agree on that is universal is that this is not a perfect world.
Boin, A., & Nieuwenburg, P. (2013). The moral costs of discretionary decision-making in crisis: Hurricane katrina and the memorial hospital tragedy. Public Integrity, 15(4), 367-384. doi:10.2753/PIN1099-9922150403
Christensen, S. L., & Kohls, J. (2003). Ethical decision making in times of organizational crisis: A framework for analysis (Links to an external site.). Business & Society, 42(3), 328-358.
Feldman, Martha S. 1992. “Social Limits to Discretion: An Organizational Perspective.” In The Uses of Discretion, edited by Keith Hawkins, pp. 163–183. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Penn State University (n.d.). Crisis Defined. Retrieved from Penn State University Ethics and Leadership: https://psu.instructure.com/courses/1775390/pages/l10-crisis- defined?module_item_id=20678789