In Penn State child sex abuse case, lessons for universities far and wide

The child sex abuse scandal that has rocked Penn State is a teachable moment, say college and university officials from across the US. Fostering a culture of accountability on campus is key, they say.

The child sex abuse scandal that has rocked Penn State is, say college and university officials far from State College, Pa., not only a cautionary tale, but also a very big teachable moment.

In the wake of the firing of football coach Joe Paterno and the exit of several Penn State officials, including its president, college administrators elsewhere are emphasizing to their staffs the importance of reporting any sex abuse crimes – especially those involving children – to the police. Some college presidents say the tragedy is a reminder that they must go beyond the letter of the law, particularly at institutions that try to teach moral values and principles to students.

Others say the lesson is about the need to foster an atmosphere on campus in which individuals are not afraid of reporting crimes, even if they are committed by famous faculty.

IN PICTURES: Fallout from the Penn State scandal

Arizona State University President Michael Crow, for one, says that the first news reports Monday about alleged child sexual abuse involving a former Penn State defensive coach, Jerry Sandusky, prompted him to immediately remind senior staff of their obligation to report all crimes to police.

“We reiterated our view that there is not going to be any culture of protectiveness in our institutions,” says Mr. Crow. “Everyone is subject to the same rules, everyone.”

Leaders at other institutions say they will do the same in the near future.

“I have already set up a discussion with our senior administrators to talk about when we are confronted with a situation,” says Ken Ruscio, president of Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va. “We will want to look at the legal ramifications and reputation risk,” he says. “But in the end it comes down to what to do when we are faced with an ethical question.”

At Penn State, it’s not clear how senior officials at the university saw their ethical duties. A grand jury has charged Mr. Sandusky with sex abuse or sexual assault of eight young boys, at least one as young as 10, over a 15-year period that includes some time while he was still a coach.

In one instance, a graduate assistant informed Coach Paterno about an assault he witnessed in the locker room shower involving Sandusky. Paterno did not call the police but informed the athletic director, who in turn told a senior official responsible for the campus police. Weeks later, the athletic director and senior official told Graham Spanier, president of the university, that the episode was a case of horseplay.

On Wednesday, the Penn State board of trustees fired Paterno, who earlier in the day had said he would retire at year's end. They also dismissed Mr. Spanier, who is credited with helping to bolster the university’s academic reputation. On Thursday, defensive coordinator Tom Bradley was named interim coach of the football program.

Athletic Director Tim Curley and the senior official, Gary Schultz, are charged with lying to the grand jury. They maintain their innocence, as does Sandusky, who has been released on bail.

Sandusky was a mythic coach who helped to give Penn State its reputation as “Linebacker U.”

To at least some observers, it appears the university tried to protect the coach instead of the children. “It just appears with the aura of the program, the coach took precedence over underage children here,” says Robert Malekoff, chairman of the Sports Studies Department at Guilford College, in Greensboro, N.C.

To keep that from happening, some college presidents say the atmosphere on campus must not discourage students or faculty from becoming whistleblowers.

“We need to provide the leadership, so people are not afraid to present very unpleasant concerns or allegations to us,” says Dennis Berkey, president of Worcester Polytechnic Institute, in Massachusetts. “We need to be committed to get to the bottom of them [the allegations] even if it may hurt our constituencies or even our own tenure at the institutions.”

Washington and Lee's Mr. Ruscio hopes the debate is not confined to big-time athletics at Division I universities. “I think it’s bigger than that,” he says. “It could have happened in the History Department.”

IN PICTURES: Fallout from the Penn State scandal 

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