On the Challenges facing Penn State University Post-Sandusky
January 30, 2015
By Eric J. Barron
Penn State University
Message to the University
Penn State University is an extraordinarily successful academic institution, highly ranked, with robust finances and applications for admission breaking all-time records, and with a dedicated faculty who are competitive with the best in the world. Research expenditures consistently exceed $800 million a year in spite of significant declines in federal research funding, our commitment to teaching is noteworthy, and our online undergraduate programs through the World Campus are ranked as the very best in the world. Need-based students graduate at a much higher rate than predicted by organizations that rank the university. Our alumni have demonstrated their commitment to the university as evidenced by a capital campaign that exceeded its $2 billion dollar goal and achieved $530 million dollars in new student scholarships. Our students achieve, whether through national championships, international medals, or competitive fellowships. We can be extremely proud of our institution. And, most importantly, our long-held culture ensures that, despite the level of excellence we have reached, we are not satisfied. Our faculty, our students, our staff and the administration are still reaching higher. My personal pride in this institution could not be greater.
Yet these extraordinary accomplishments are rarely the focus of either national or local media, and even many of our alumni do not have a full sense of what we are accomplishing and the level of promise that exists for our future. Instead, recognition of our accomplishments is overshadowed by the actions and reactions that have followed the arrest and ultimate conviction of Jerry Sandusky and by the fact that so many issues of national discussion today are more focused on creating polarity and controversy than they are on providing clarity or finding solutions.
For this reason, I believe that I owe you, as your president, a clear description of my views and my thoughts on this important topic.
Our commitment to combatting child sexual abuse is unwavering
I can think of few crimes more heinous than the sexual assault of a child. The fact is that Jerry Sandusky was convicted of multiple counts of this terrible crime, and sadly, Sandusky was connected to Penn State. We are, as individuals and as an institution, appalled by his actions and we are committed to stronger educational programs focused on child abuse, greater efforts focused on prevention and higher levels of support so that victims have the greatest chance to become survivors. We will strive to become ever better in our efforts, and to be a national leader in this cause. I know of no Penn Stater who feels differently.
The judicial process must run its course
We also have faced, and continue to face, a trial of the institution in various media reacting to the Freeh report and based on the indictment of three former University administrators. This “pre-trial” appears to have found our institution guilty. Further, the burden of this guilt has somehow been on the shoulders of tens of thousands of employees, students and alumni. The latter is absurd and undeserved. The guilt of the former administrators has not yet been determined in a court of law. Outside of Penn State we repeatedly see cases tried in the media. People are convicted in the court of public opinion, only to find a different outcome when all the facts are presented. Unfortunately, we have to wait impatiently for our judicial process to run its course. Regardless of the wide range of individual opinion or desires, as an institution, it is very difficult to either defend or assail until a judgment based on a full set of facts is rendered.
There are significant problems with the Freeh Report
The Freeh report presents a number of additional challenges. The report was intended to create an independent assessment, as few would trust an institution’s self-assessment under such high-profile negative attention and serious allegations. Independent investigations are a frequent course of action in such cases. Consequently, this was a logical option for our Board of Trustees. But, the report is limited in significant ways:
- Freeh did not have subpoena power and could not interfere with on-going criminal investigations, and as a consequence his team could not interview many of the most salient individuals. Regardless of how many times we might try to redo this investigation, the same limitations will appear for the identical reasons.
- Equally important, Freeh expressed his personal opinions and conclusions about the motivation of individuals, rather than simply presenting factual information. Certainly, some of the content raises real questions, but only through criminal proceedings do you have access to all witnesses and only through this process do you view information from the counter-balanced perspective of both defense and prosecutor.
What Penn State needed was immediate and unvarnished information. We needed an outsider’s insights into improved governance practices. Recognizing the limitations of an investigative report, the Board of Trustees did not accept the Freeh report as truth, but rather, adopted the specific recommendations on governance and compliance with the objective of making our University better. Unfortunately, nuanced acceptances and carefully worded messages are completely lost in the world of sound bites and headlines. I would like my personal views to be clear:
- I am committed to compliance and ethics. When I was a faculty member at Penn State during a period of twenty years, I was proud of our commitment to excellence and to student athletes, and I am even more proud that our commitment continues today and that our programs in compliance and ethics are clearly best practices in athletics. I am proud to stack our program against any in the nation and I am fully committed to maintaining those practices.
- At the same time, my view is that the limitations of the Freeh report prevent it from being the basis of any decision facing Penn State.
The recent NCAA settlement was a good compromise
I also wish to address the role of the NCAA and the recent settlement in the Corman-NCAA case. In signing the Consent Decree, the University committed that it would not challenge the Consent Decree. With its dissolution, I would like to publicly add my viewpoint on this important settlement. It is a compromise, and with most compromises individuals and organizations on all sides are not completely satisfied. But, I believe it is a significant milestone and well worth supporting for several reasons. The press has focused on the 112 wins, and Joe Paterno’s place in football history, so I will cover that point last.
First, the Consent Decree was the basis for the $60 million fine. State officials Corman and McCord sued to keep the $60 million fine in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania through the Endowment Act to support victims of child abuse. Fundamentally, the importance of supporting victims and educational programming related to child abuse controlled the nature of the settlement. The importance of this issue to all parties meant that the Consent Decree would be dissolved with superseding terms rather than repudiated.
Second, the Athletics Integrity Agreement (AIA) was left to future discussion between the NCAA, Big Ten, and Penn State with the agreed stipulation that all punitive conditions would be removed. Some have expressed concern that this keeps the monitor in place and questioned whether this fact (as well as payment of the $60 million) is an admission of guilt. The University’s desire to remediate harm is not an admission of guilt. It is much more an act of human concern, compassion and empathy. As stated above, establishing levels of guilt depends on pending criminal cases, not on the terms of a compromise that settled litigation against the University and terminated the Consent Decree.
The terms of the compromise have a clear reasoning. First, no party of the settlement wanted to minimize the importance of addressing child abuse. Second, athletic integrity is an appropriate topic for any institution. I have little concern that we may have to continue to have a monitor under the AIA for a while longer. The monitor provides an independent and highly credible voice, external to the University, that has consistently recognized the strength of our ethics and compliance program. With the monitor in place, no one can doubt the quality of our programs and our commitment to doing it right.
As to the restoration of wins, I believe that (1) the NCAA should not have stepped outside of its normal infractions process as it inevitably raises questions of fairness and appropriateness, and (2) the actions of Sandusky had no bearing on recruiting or eligibility that would have influenced the outcome of any game, and therefore the wins should not have been removed in the first place. I am also on record stating that I believe that the NCAA had a legitimate interest in the Sandusky matter and that I believe, from speaking with many of the presidents who make up the governance of the NCAA, they acted in good faith based on the overall principles of institutional control. I respect their views even though I believe it was inappropriate for the NCAA to step outside of its infractions process.
We must hold each other up, not tear each other down
Many issues remain, not the least of which is the polarity surrounding the above topics. A survey of the multitude of lawsuits facing Penn State is instructive. Penn State is being sued both by those who think we did not do enough and by those who think we over-reacted and did too much. The financial impacts are significant, and so is the toll of having this subject a constant focus of the media, particularly in Pennsylvania. As the settlement of the Corman case reached its conclusion, we were equally bombarded by hundreds of emails and social media posts that assailed us for insensitivity and not caring about victims and those that assailed us for not celebrating the return of the football record. Many of the messages Penn State has received over the last several months are the nastiest that I have ever read in my career as an administrator. Sadly, some crossed into the territory of threats that violate the law. And, of course, much of the conflict is occurring in public venues and is reported. Interestingly, a recent alumni survey demonstrated an overwhelmingly high regard of Penn State as an academic institution but, equally interesting, the satisfaction rate was lower in Pennsylvania, with those in Pennsylvania reporting that their greatest source of information was newspapers.
Now we realize that Penn State has paid a great price, far greater even than those who imposed the sanctions realized. The University is focused on our mission and we are serving students better than any time in our history, but the sanctions and the resulting drawn out process have created an enduring conflict between Penn State alumni. Although the alumni have the same foundation of love and commitment to Penn State, and the same belief that the Freeh report is limited and an indictment of the culture of thousands of students, faculty, staff and alumni is unwarranted, their views about the right approach to reaching an end of the conflict and gaining an honest accounting of history is very different. For many of the alumni who have put their voice to these issues, there has been little middle ground. Your University will continue to set new achievement records for faculty, staff and students, but the level of conflict among alumni means that, even with the full reversal or approaching end of all sanctions, the healing process will continue to take time.
Thank you for reading this rather long letter to you. I will continue to take pride in your accomplishments and I will do my best to navigate Penn State to a place where mission and accomplishment are clear to all.