Monday, July 16, 2012

Resolving the Penn State "Statue" Issue

The Freeh Report on the Penn State sex-abuse scandal was released last week, making national headlines. It showed that Assistant Coach Sandusky’s sexual behavior with young boys was not only known by legendary Coach Paterno (now deceased), but it was also known at the highest levels of the University and never reported to the authorities — in clear violation of the Clery Act, which requires all colleges and universities that participate in federal financial aid programs to maintain and disclose information about crime on and near their campus.

The entire scandal is a public relations bomb for Penn State. But because of the space I limit myself to in a blog, I will focus on one aspect of this nightmare: whether the statue of Joe Paterno in front of the stadium should remain or be removed and, depending on the action, what kind of legacy will this create?

Like many others, I believe that the statue should be removed because of the negative reminders it conveys of a troubled culture and Paterno’s cover-up for more than a decade, but it’s a complicated issue. There are most likely many who see his life’s body of work at Penn State for more than 60 years — and 46 years as head coach of the Nittany Lions —as more important than these recent revelations. The Freeh Report casts a dark shadow on the reputation of the entire university, puts its accreditation at risk, may well stifle student applications and threatens federal funding. That said, because of all the major negative national publicity, the statue has taken on a life of its own and may prove to be a major tourist attraction. It stands for part of the history and heritage of the University. It fundamentally represents the story of a great American football team and the players who made it great. Many may seize upon it for that. One news story noted that the trustees will not do anything rash, meaning that the statue will not come down immediately and time may be an ally. If they wait months, perspectives may change, and the positives may loom larger than the negatives.

But if the Board of Trustees gave an immediate order to remove the statue, it would be a public acknowledgement that the school is rejecting the culture that produced the scandal. For parents of potential students who are sensitive to placing their sons and daughters in a moral environment, this act may help eliminate at least some of the lingering tarnish. And it also may help dilute the mercenary image the school has acquired because of the role played by football money in the cover-up (i.e., let’s not kill the goose that laid the golden egg).

So how about this? Take an extensive survey of all the stakeholders — students, potential students, parents of current and former students, faculty, trustees, alumni, campus employees, administrative leadership, etc. Ask questions about the decision on the statue and the legacy it will leave if it stands. Ask what it communicates today — and whether time will heal the reputational wounds. Ask if the statue is merely a symbol and if its very essence transcends any physical object. Ask if the spirit and culture of Penn State will benefit or be hurt by what this statue represents today and in the future. Does this make a case for delaying the building of a statue until someone has died? Of course, reputation-tarnishing information can even emerge after someone’s death.

Make an assessment once the survey data is in. At least then the university will have a chance to stand back and cogitate on the findings, and perhaps respond to a possible consensus. The chances of making the best decision for the long term may be found through this channel.

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