A Failure to Act—Sanction Against Leadership at Penn State

By Jean Lau Chin
December 7, 2011

Penn State University's recent forced resignation of its President, Graham B. Spanier and firing of its head football Coach, Joe Paterno was a historic moment—It was a sanction against the failure of leaders to act and to uphold their ethical responsibility to protect those in their charge. What is being challenged in this historic moment is the leaders cannot allow the politics of athletics and the power of money to win over their judgment and ethical responsibility to act. It challenges the sanctity of college athletics as being above scrutiny. In this public and profound action, college athletics and higher education will never be the same. Cultures of silence that enable sexual abuse in the interest of the sport and the high money stakes will not be tolerated. Expectations of leadership will be held to a higher standard.

Former assistant coach of Penn State University, Jerry Sandusky, was charged with sexually assaulting eight boys before and after his retirement in 1999. Even after reports alleging sexual abuse, Sandusky was allowed continued access to young boys. University officials from the coach to the president were held responsible by its board of trustees. This action was a first given that President Spanier and Coach Paterno were not the perpetrators. The sanction was considered severe by many, against a president and coach who was beloved by many and credited with elevating the reputation and status of the university and its football team.

Not to allow Paterno coach the final game was symbolic of a new intolerance for the failure of leaders to act, maintaining a culture of silence for the reputation of the university and so that “the game can go on”. In holding leadership to a higher standard, the burden of responsibility did not stop with Coach Paterno reporting the alleged sexual abuse; he needed to ensure that action was taken. Moreover, this historic moment elevates sexual abuse to the forefront of our collective consciousness. It elevates the ethical responsibility of our leaders to act, and holds them to a higher standard of reporting.

From a feminist leadership perspective, we must question how the values of a masculinized context of athletics and college football could have allowed this go on for 20 years, and how this will change how we address sexual abuse. Interestingly, it coincides with the 20th anniversary of the Anita Hill testimony and accusations of sexual harassment against then Supreme Court nominee, Clarence Thomas—an event which forever changed how we addressed sexual harassment. Prior to the Anita Hill hearings, sexual harassment was said to be “underreported, difficult to prove, and challenged as having happened at all.” Afterwards, no longer was it a man’s world and privilege to engage in such behavior while other men looked the other way and blamed the victim; and if it was found to have happened, then women were to learn to live with it. The Penn State scandal similarly signals and symbolizes a sea change in our society that we are not to look the other way when we become aware of sexual abuse, and we have the burden of responsibility to act, protect, and stop it.

Dr. Chin has researched women and leadership issues with a book on this topic, and is professor at Adelphi University.