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Robert G. Duffett, Published August 06 2012

Paterno, culture and Penn State

Most major college football programs began preseason practice last week. Usually a time of anticipation, a somber tone engulfs summer camps from the Big 10 to the Big 12 to the Southeast conference. This year, college football confronts fundamental moral questions.

Jerry Sandusky, a long-serving, highly respected assistant football coach, was convicted of 45 counts of serial child molestation. He awaits an almost certain life sentence in prison. His misdeeds occurred at one of the premiere football programs and universities in America: Penn State University.

Louis Freeh, former director of the FBI, was commissioned by the Board of Trustees of Penn State to investigate what went wrong. Freeh’s report blames Sandusky, first and foremost, for his own egregious behavior. Yet legendary head coach Joe Paterno, university president Graham Spanier and other high-level administrators long knew about Sandusky’s crimes but took little corrective action to safeguard Sandusky’s victims. The most important recommendation from the report calls for an honest examination of the Penn State culture.

Examining the culture is a sound recommendation. But culture does not make decisions; people do. Perhaps a more fruitful endeavor is to discern why thoughtful and caring individuals sometimes make immoral choices. It is at this point that past wisdom sheds contemporary insight.

Why did highly respected Penn State leaders, experienced in making tough decisions, succumb to transgressions of omission? First, Penn State leaders lost sight that image is not always reality. All want to be well thought of by others. As a college president, I spend much time trying to boost the image and reputation and trumpeting the accomplishments of my university. However, image is reality only some of the time.

Too often we close our eyes and heart to reality in plain sight. We do this not because we are bad people. Rather, truth challenges our image and ideal. When truth is ignored and image too stridently preserved, bad results often follow, leading to transgressions of omission. This was the worst mistake Penn State leaders made.

Second, misplaced loyalty blinded Paterno and is another example of transgression by omission. Sandusky worked for Paterno for 30 years. During that time they won many games, graduated players, supported academics and Paterno himself raised funds for the university’s main library. Both men enjoyed near adulation among those who knew them best: their players. Yet Coach Paterno chose loyalty to someone who both violated children and traduced his friendship.

Last, many have commented on Paterno’s legacy. Legacy is based on history which encompasses all, not select, chapters of life. Positive chapters will be written on the best of Paterno, Nittany Lion football and his life of service. Other chapters will include how he handled this assistant coach. No chapter cancels or eclipses other chapters. All make the book of legacy complete.

Maybe Paterno himself put his legacy in fitting context. In his letter of resignation to the Board of Trustees, written a few months before his death, he said he regretted that he did not do more.

Leaders must lead, based not on image or friendship, but on enduring institutional values.

Duffett is president, Dakota Weslyan University, Mitchell, S.D.