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
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