Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Penn State Trustees' Questionable Stewardship

The Chinese leadership concept of the Mandate of Heaven relates to the leader's or monarch's service to his or her stakeholders, and stewardship for the welfare of the organization. The Indo-European root dher, which appears in Asian Indian titles like Sirdar, Jemadar, and so on along with names like Darius means "to hold" in the sense of responsibility or stewardship. From where we sit, the manner in which Penn State's Trustees fired football coach Joe Paterno illustrates poor stewardship.

One statement in favor of Paterno's dismissal said the Trustees had to "stop the bleeding" over the scandal due to former coach Jerry Sandusky's alleged sexual abuse of children. One can indeed stop a head wound from bleeding by cutting the patient's throat, which may well be what the Trustees did to the University in terms of future alumni support. (The thousands of students who demonstrated against Paterno's dismissal will be alumni in a few years.) Everything about the affair, including an emergency meeting, suggests not a careful and deliberative process but rather a hasty rush to judgment. The elephant in the living room is the conspicuous absence of assistant coach Mike McQueary from the list of those fired or forced to resign. Trustee spokesman John Surma said Wednesday that there "has been no change in (McQueary's) status at this time."

From where we sit, the Trustees' unspoken objective, and the word "groupthink" comes to mind, was to satiate a media feeding frenzy. We cannot identify any "careful consideration" (the words used in conjunction with Paterno's dismissal) in terms of deliberation much less impartial investigation. The committee or panel the Trustees said would investigate has in fact yet to be created. The phrase "Sentence first, verdict afterward" from Alice in Wonderland comes to mind immediately.

Let's look at the media lynch mob's view that "Paterno should have done more to protect the children" from a position of common sense and reality rather than emotion or a self-serving desire to attack the country's most respected football coach and mentor. Kenny Rogers' lyrics "Did you ever kick a good man when he was down, just to make yourself feel strong?" come to mind immediately in the latter context. The same goes for a beer-muscle crowd that always knows with the benefit of 20:20 hindsight what the person on the spot should have done. Suppose that Paterno had indeed called the State Police as soon as McQueary brought his allegations to him.

State Trooper: "All right, Mr. Paterno, what did you see, and when and where did you see it?"

Paterno: "I wasn't there."

Trooper (not very impressed): "Then the man who was there needs to talk to us."

The best Paterno could have therefore done even with the benefit of 20:20 hindsight (the indictment against Jerry Sandusky) would have been to put McQueary in touch with the police instead of University administrators. Then it would have been McQueary's word against Sandusky's unless the victim could be located. We cannot give legal advice but we are not even sure it is possible to prosecute a sex crime without a victim.

It is very bad judgment to accuse anybody of a crime you cannot prove, and this was (in 2002) an easily foreseeable outcome of Paterno "taking the matter further than he did." The scenario is not hypothetical, and we speak from personal experience.

A few years ago, while researching Barack Obama's legislative tolerance for live birth abortion, we found on a very prominent pro-life Web site a credible accusation that a named doctor and hospital had left an unwanted baby (as defined by law, not the pro-life camp) to die from neglect. We took reasonable, prudent, and limited action by forwarding the hearsay evidence (the same kind of evidence in front of Paterno) to the hospital regulatory agency of the state in question. In other words, we went through channels as Paterno went through channels. The agency discovered the accusation to be false, so the Web site owner was lucky to not be sued for libel along with the source of the accusation. This illustrates the possible consequences of "doing more" as Paterno's critics say he should have done.

The context in which McQueary reported his allegations to Paterno could have easily reinforced the nightmare scenario of a false accusation to the wrong people followed by its moral and legal consequences. Our immediate first reaction would have been, "You weren't confident enough that you saw what you think you saw to call the police on the spot. How can I be confident enough to call them on the basis of hearsay evidence now?" This does not mean we would have looked the other way or done nothing; we did something about the hearsay report of a baby's purported murder. Paterno also did something. He took the allegation to his superiors, and probably assumed quite reasonably that they would involve the University's attorney to handle the matter in a way that would not expose the University to a libel suit. That is good stewardship, which makes the Trustees' preemptory dismissal and humiliation of the man who exercised it bad stewardship.

Paterno had no way to know that Gary Schultz, whose supervisory responsibilities included the campus police, would not handle the matter thoroughly and would later be indicted for perjury. Graham Spanier's sole fault meanwhile seems to be that, as Schultz's supervisor, the buck technically stopped with him.

The underlying problem is of course that McQueary did not call the police to report an (alleged until proven) violent felony in progress. Had he done so, the police might have arrived in time to catch Sandusky in the act, or at least in time to catch him when he tried to leave with the boy. Then they would have had a victim, witnesses including not only McQueary but also the responding officer(s), physical evidence, and an open and shut case.

It is therefore impossible for us to envision any circumstances in which the Trustees can be right about firing Paterno while not firing McQueary. Had the Trustees fired everybody involved including McQueary, we would not agree with the action's haste or its fairness to Paterno, but nobody could say that the Trustees had not been consistent. They could also have fired nobody while waiting for both the law and their own investigative panel to do their work. They instead chose the worst possible course of action; one whose inconsistency makes it impossible for us to accept their boilerplate statement that it was for the best interests of the University. We perceive only a hasty consensus to satiate a media lynch mob by firing and humiliating a man known not only for his football victories but also for making star players go to class rather than win games for him if that choice had to be made. Others also perceive it this way, and that is not in the best interests of the University.

--Bill Levinson B.S. '78

1 comment:

  1. This was written on November 11. It has now come out that Mike McQueary says he DID involve the police at the time, which means there would have been even less reason for Paterno to do so. This makes the Trustees' side of the story even less viable.