Our country was founded on the principle of individual freedom and liberty. We are born free, with God-given rights to pursue our hopes and dreams.
But if it’s individual liberty that defines us, it’s the institutions of our society that hold the country together and keep us functioning. Family, religion, government, business, schools, and others provide the necessary structure and guidelines for behavior.
We may constantly complain about these institutions, but we ultimately have faith in them, otherwise we would be in a state of anarchy.
That’s why when institutions fail, the country shudders.
The banking crisis during the great recession caused us to question Wall Street. The Enron scandal triggered distrust in big businesses. The Catholic Church sex abuse scandal shook the foundation of the church.
The case of former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky is yet another example of institutional failure.
The independent report by Louis Freeh released Thursday shows that trusted, powerful and respected people in positions of responsibility at Penn State got off track. The late coach Joe Paterno, President Graham Spanier, Vice President Gary Schultz and Athletic Director Tim Curley demonstrated “total and consistent disregard… for the safety and welfare of Sandusky’s child victims.”
According to the Freeh report, these four men, left unchecked by the Board of Trustees, abdicated their responsibilities to hold Sandusky accountable “in order to avoid the consequences of bad publicity.”
Perhaps most chilling is the conclusion that the refusal of Paterno and the others to do the right thing actually “empowered Sandusky to attract potential victims to the campus and football events by allowing him to have continued, unrestricted and unsupervised access to the University’s facilities.”
That access, the investigation found, “was the very currency that enabled him to attract his victims.” Sandusky was convicted last month of 45 counts of child sexual abuse.
How does this happen? What contributes to this kind of spectacular failure of decency and consciousness at the highest levels of a prestigious university?
Writer and consultant Harlan Ullman says there are three primary reasons for institutional meltdowns.
–Strategic incompetence: This is what happens when people, no matter how smart or experienced, simply don’t know what they are doing in a given situation and they make bad judgments.
–Arrogance: Leaders insulate themselves from alternative views, believing they always know best.
–Ideology: Those in charge find ways to rationalize their decisions, even though they may defy logic.
The Penn State scandal has all the symptoms. The culture at the top at State College, at least concerning this ignominy, was to protect the institution and treat one of its own, Jerry Sandusky, humanely, while ignoring the victims.
Last month’s trial confirmed that Sandusky is a perverse serial child molester. The court system, another critical institution in this country, worked. Justice was done.
As for Penn State, its work is just beginning.
The Freeh report concluded, “It’s critical that Old Main, the Board and the Penn State community never forget these failures and commit themselves to strengthening an open, compliant and victim sensitive environment—where everyone has the duty to ‘blow the whistle’ on anyone who breaks this trust, no matter how powerful or prominent they may appear to be.”
That’s the way forward for the restoration of faith in the institution.