"Appalled" would be far too mild a word to describe my reaction to the Penn State sexual assault allegations.
For those of you looking for a lesson as to how something awful can totally spin out of control for your organization, review that first sentence. "… the Penn State sexual assault allegations." Not the Jerry Sandusky sexual assault allegations-this awful episode is now totally within the Penn State brand. It doesn't matter that Sandusky, a former longtime defensive coordinator for the PSU football team, was no longer working for the University when these terrible events started coming to light. The incomplete and apparently uncoordinated response of the PSU leadership to what was witnessed and reported by a graduate student places a significant amount of blame at the very top of the Penn State athletic department.
We know from reading the initial reports that there may be a valid legal defense for the two Penn State administrators, who have been arraigned on charges of failing to report criminal sexual activity involving children, and perjury. We know that iconic coach Joe Paterno is not accused of any legal wrongdoing. But surely somebody at least contemplated whether there could be a valid moral, public relations or business justification for failing to do more on the information the athletic department received in 2002.
Irrespective of the fact that what was being reported was a criminal sexual assault on a child by an individual with almost total access to the Penn State athletic facilities, and who enjoyed the trust of everyone at the University, I have to believe that some adult in this miserable process thought about what this would be like if the administration's attempt to sweep it under the rug was unsuccessful, or if the benign assumption about Sandusky was wrong. How someone could possibly believe that there was any type of upside - moral, business, personal - in not making this a formal investigation and complaint is simply staggering.
Under the circumstances, it's probably wise to revisit a few of my basic truisms about corporate conduct. No. 1 -- whitewashing something like this and being found out almost always creates a situation far worse than does reporting the misconduct when it first surfaces. No. 2 -- a cover-up will almost always be found out; and the worse the conduct, the more likely the cover-up will be unsuccessful. No.3 -- there is no proper explanation, at least not one that you can make and continue to look at yourself in the mirror each day, for not intervening to stop a sexual assault on a child, and/or not immediately reporting what you observed to the police. No.4 -- there are certain circumstances in which there is no such thing as the "benefit of the doubt." And last -- the more difficult the choice confronting the organization (i.e., confronting the individuals in the organization making the choice), the more likely that the easy choice is the wrong one.
All of us know how we would like to think we would act in circumstances similar to those confronting Joe Paterno, his graduate assistant, and the Penn State athletic director and Penn State's senior vice president for business and finance. Reminding ourselves of the truisms above might help our decision-making process become closer to our ideal.
UPDATE: I agree with the assessments expressed here.
UPDATE #2: The inevitable conclusion (note that there has been sentiment to ask Paterno to step down for some time; this provides the obvious mechanism since he seemed impervious to hints). The PSU Board and its alumni supporters simply could not stand the thought of showing up at the remaining games this season and being confronted by protests and signs saying "Welcome molesters", and the like. As the article says, someone finally decided to act like an adult at State College. The decision comes at least 13 years too late.