The Week in Ethics: How to Start a Culture Shift at Penn State

July 12, 2012 Penn State University trustees, administrators, faculty, students, staff, and alumni began to digest the 267 page report by former FBI director Louis Freeh. Freeh was  hired by trustees as special investigative counsel  to look at Penn State’s role in a former assistant coach’s child sex abuse scandal. The report offers more than 100 recommendations for action by Penn State.

I talk about culture’s role in deterring or inviting crisis and the impact at Penn State in my July 12 Business Ethics Magazine column. Earlier today, I was interviewed on Minnesota Public Radio about ways Penn State can move forward. One of the things I suggested was a teach-in. I’d like to elaborate on that here.

In the culture section of the Freeh report, the  first recommendation raises the question of how to ensure there is community engagement. The recommendation says:

“Organize a Penn State-led effort to vigorously examine and understand the Penn State culture in order to: 1)  reinforce the commitment of all university members to protect children; 2) create a stronger sense of accountability among university leadership; 3) establish values and ethics-based decision making and adherence to the Penn State Principles as the standard for all university faculty, staff and students; 4) promote an increased environment of transparency into the management of the university; and 5) ensure a sustained integration of the Intercollegiate Athletics program into the broader Penn State community.”

First of all, part 3 of that recommendation needs to be amended to add trustees, the president’s office and all members of the administration to join the rest of the campus in establishing values and ethics-based decision making and adherence to the Penn State Principles.

The recommendation goes on to list several diverse groups on campus who should participate as well as alumni and representatives from peer institutions who have experience in reviewing and improving institutional culture.

To create a greater sense of engagement, as a first step, Penn State might consider  taking the eight recommendations related to culture (two-pages of the report) and emailing them to every student, administrator, and member of the faculty and staff attached with an invitation and request to participate in a one-day teach-in to be held the first week when classes resume next month for fall semester.

Normal class schedule and work would be suspended that day while the university holds a variety of online and face-to-face small and large forums for the campus community to come together to discuss Penn State’s Principles, the values the university wants to stand for, the ways in which the university can support  using values and ethics-based decision making and how a community can support each other in giving voice to values.

How Penn State would organize this, create facilitated discussions, moderated panels, recording  of questions and suggestions and handle follow up to ensure continued engagement in the process would enable the culture piece of the report to become a working document,  a basis for ongoing discussion and understanding.

The key discussion points from the teach-in could be given to the groups the Freeh report specifies for action, including: the Special Faculty Committee on University Governance, Penn State’s Coalition on Intercollegiate Athletics, the Rock Ethic’s Institute, as well as students, faculty, alumni and staff.

With a basis of shared discussion and collaboration to develop ideas, then representatives from these constituencies could meet together with “representatives from peer institutions” as the report suggests who have “experience in reviewing and improving institutional culture in academic settings.”

The goal of this  recommendation is to change the culture. What better way to start than by ensuring a process of ample discussion, understanding, idea generation,and buy-in around what is possible for Penn State to become emerging from this crisis.

Gael O’Brien       July 12, 2012

The Week in Ethics

Gael O’Brien is also a columnist for Business Ethics Magazine. Her July 12, 2012 column is Penn State Scandal Highlights Failures in Leadership and Culture

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Explore posts in the same categories: Code of Conduct, Culture, Ethical Behavior, Ethical Leadership, Governance, Leadership, Transparency

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6 Comments on “The Week in Ethics: How to Start a Culture Shift at Penn State”


  1. As a Penn State alum, this ongoing story has been very difficult. I look forward to moving forward with repairing the culture and principles I have always taken such pride in.

  2. Gael O'Brien Says:

    Thanks for writing, Stephanie. There is every reason to believe that Penn State will emerge from this crisis stronger through the focus on culture and how values are given voice. Gael .

  3. Janey Roeder Says:

    Excellent article, Gael. Could you offer your expertise to Penn State during the rebuilding process? I can picture you facilitating the process of bringing the university community together to build a new foundation based on values and ethics.

    • Gael O'Brien Says:

      Thanks, Janey, for writing. It would be great to help Penn State succeed. I am actually hoping the Rock Ethics Institute at Penn State will step up and be a catalyst in this process because they are perfectly positioned to do so. Gael

  4. adymacsut Says:

    It is an excelent article. I teach ethics in Bucharest, Romania, Europe.


  5. […] State remains under a microscope, with a great deal of input from others on ways to address what went wrong. It is up to them to understand fully how Sandusky, now a […]


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