The Cost of a College Touchdown


A Story of Trustee Miscalculation






usically speaking, July 2012 is a Gimme Shelter moment for the football team owned and operated by the Pennsylvania State University trustees. Early in the month, because of the University’s links to the Sandusky child sexual abuse cover-up, the officers who administer justice for the 1,066-school sporting association to which

Penn State belongs seem poised to terminate the team for several seasons, aka to give it the death penalty.

The moment looms large for the University, too. The connection between the Penn State community, the Sandusky cover-up, and the football team presents the trustees with important questions about the University's purpose.

The response to those questions will speak volumes about the University's viability as an educational institution in the 21st century, when the nation’s fate will hinge in part on higher education cultivating graduates who can rejuvenate an economy of unprecedented weakness and inequality.

How do the trustees respond? The answer lies in the space between two truths.

First, the football team’s troubles are just the latest scene in a long-running pageant.

And second, the Penn State trustees, along with peers at other institutions, are the ones who stage the pageant.

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t 10:15 a.m. on Friday, 20 January 2012, at the Nittany Lion Inn on the University campus, the Penn State Board of Trustees holds its first meeting of the year.  President Rodney Erickson reports on actions taken by the University in response to the child sexual abuse scandal and cover-up.  He also lays out his vision for the University in the coming year.  Erickson holds a B.A. (1968) and an M.A. (1970) from the University of Minnesota, and a Ph.D. (1973, geography) from the

University of Washington.  He has been a member of Penn State’s faculty since 1977.  By virtue of the provisions of the University’s Charter, he, as President, is also a Trustee. 56

Trustee Kenneth Frazier, chair of the Trustees’ Special Investigations Task Force, reports on the independent investigation being conducted by Freeh Sporkin & Sullivan.  He holds a B.A. (1975) from Penn State, and a J.D. (1978) from Harvard Law School.  He is Chairman of the Board, President and CEO of Merck & Co., Inc. 57

Trustee Karen Peetz is elected as the Board’s new chairman during the meeting.  She addresses the press after the meeting.  She holds a B.S. (1977) from Penn State, and an M.S. (1981, applied behavior science) from Johns Hopkins’ Carey Business School.  She is a Vice Chairman at BNY Mellon, and in September 2011 was named by American Banker Magazine as The Most Powerful Woman in Banking.58 

Erickson, Frazier and Peetz bundle their remarks onto seven different floats.


              1.           We reflect.                                                                                            



…Although this may seem like a challenging time to be at Penn State, it’s really an extraordinary time—one that provides the opportunity to reflect on the values we hold dear and to reaffirm our long and storied legacy…”59 

                                                              --President Rodney Erickson


Erickson seems to want to signal that Penn State is a place where reflection happens:  three times during his remarks, he states that the scandal and cover-up offers the opportunity to reflect.  One is not surprised that reflection is part of an intellectual community’s response to a scandal and cover-up this tragic.  The football/mission consistency questions might be tough topics for trustee reflection, but the University’s Strategic Plan declares that the University packs the intellectual horsepower to take on tough topics:



Looking forward at both challenges and opportunities, we highlight serious and difficult questions:  …In all that we do—including outreach, extension, and service—how can Penn State maintain the fundamental connection to its academic core and to academic excellence?...60


The Strategic Plan also indicates that the trustees realize that change is their constant companion:



Penn State is already a very efficient institution that has accomplished great things with limited resources, but the University needs to think very deliberately now about the choices that it makes—including, perhaps, to shrink, consolidate, or eliminate some programs and activities—in order to build on areas of existing strength and invest in promising new ideas. ..."61


At Penn State, programs need to prove their worth to trustees to survive.  One presumes that, in this regard, football is no different from French.

Erickson’s remarks do not address a number of issues concerning a formal reflection on football/mission consistency.  Who reflects?  On exactly what topics?  When and for how long?  When and how will the insights this reflection yields be gathered?  How will those insights be folded into the University’s policies going forward? 

Elsewhere in his remarks he notes that over the past nine weeks his “dialogue” with students, faculty, staff, alumni and other members of the University community “has been a necessary part of the healing process.”  He is silent on what anyone said in dialogue, and on who healed. 62 

Notwithstanding these gaps in his remarks, one presumes that he knows that the trustees’ responsibilities do not end after they have provided an opportunity to air views, and that, in the matter of reflection, healing and change, it cannot be every man for himself.  One presumes that, in Erickson’s view, reflection happens and healing and change take place because of a community-wide exchange that triggers insight and action.  One expects the coming year will include, with respect to the football/mission questions, exchange, insight and action.



“…[T]he actions of an individual do not define Penn State—the work of our 96,000 students, 44,000 full and part-time faculty and staff, and more than half a million loyal and dedicated alumni define us.”63          

                                                    --Trustee Karen Peetz


Peetz is correct:  the University is not defined solely by the deeds of its all-time biggest villain.  And her desire to keep the University’s good features from being burned beyond recognition by the firestorm is understandable.

But Peetz is also incorrect:  the University is not defined solely by the deeds of its Nobel Prize winners, either.  For her to deny that this tragedy marks Penn State in a significant way, now and for the future, is naïve.  This is no fender bender.  Sandusky’s actions were evil.  The actions of Spanier, Paterno, Curley and Schultz were heartless.  All these actions extended over such a long time that they will not soon be forgotten, regardless of how Penn State people try to frame the impact of those actions on the school’s legacy.   Years from now, on a job interview, a first date, or a vacation, someone will mention a link to Penn State and the first thought to float through the listener’s mind will be, “Child sexual abuse scandal.”

Perhaps as the year progresses and Peetz learns more about her role as Chairman of the Board and about the nuances of leading the institution, her word choice will evolve.  One has no reason to expect, in light of Erickson’s remarks and the Strategic Plan’s declarations, that her remarks signal a denial that will keep a formal program for reflecting on the football/mission consistency questions from emerging.


              2.           We investigate.           



“…[Freeh] have been tasked to investigate this matter fully, fairly and completely …64                     

                                                    --Trustee Kenneth Frazier


“Fully, fairly and completely” sounds good.  It signals that the response to this tragedy is in the hands of people who are forthright and honorable.


              3.           We are a national leader.         



…Penn State will become a national leader in the research, prevention and treatment of child abuse…65                     

                                                    --President Rodney Erickson


During the ten weeks between Sandusky’s indictment and this morning’s meeting, the trustees funded a $1.5 million partnership between the University and Penn Coalition Against Rape, launched a child abuse treatment and prevention center at the University’s Hospital, began the work of establishing an institute to study and treat child abuse, and took other steps to support awareness and prevention of child abuse.66  These are all commendable uses of the University’s resources.  Much good will no doubt flow from these efforts.

Yet one would think the trustees realize that if, through the University’s efforts to fight child abuse, even one child in Pennsylvania is rescued from a situation that could result in abuse, then that accomplishment would be infinitely more important than the University being labeled a national leader in child abuse prevention.

One would also think that the trustees know that being labeled a national leader in child abuse prevention will not eliminate the need to understand how the community’s demand for and identification with football success factored into the Sandusky cover-up.

Finally, one would think that the trustees know that, at this time, no one wants leadership on child abuse from people who, within the last ten weeks, fired the president, granted leave to two officers accused of perjury, and fired the revered football coach for enabling one of the emeriti who appears to have used University property and University connections to engineer a twenty-year spree of child abuse.  One would think that the trustees suspect that, at this time, no one is eager to accord “national leader” status to people who have just claimed that they were so out of touch with their surroundings that they had no idea about the alleged two-decade spree of evil in their midst.  By telling people Penn State will lead the nation in an area where it just facilitated so much pain, Erickson makes erasing that pain sound easy.  One would think that the trustees intuit the disaster in this statement.

Accordingly, one would think that the trustees would exercise some taste:  make sure that the University’s good works in child abuse awareness and prevention continue, and that the national leader note is not sounded again...


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William Devine leads the Board + Management Practice.  He is Adjunct Professor of Management at Menlo College.  He wrote Women, Men & Money (Random House, 1998), and once spent a season coaching college basketball.










The Cost of a College Touchdown

































56Minutes of Meeting, Board of Trustees,” Pennsylvania State University, 20 January 2012.  “President Rodney Erickson, Biography,” Pennsylvania State University.  “CLA Reach,” University of Minnesota, 18 June 2012.  “Board of Trustees, Membership Selection,” Pennsylvania State University. 

57Executive Profile, Kenneth C. Frazier, Merck & Co., Inc.,” Bloomberg Businessweek, accessed 15 August 2012.  “Frazier Provides Update on Independent Investigation,” Pennsylvania State University, 20 January 2012.  See “Former FBI Director Freeh to Conduct Independent Investigation,” Pennsylvania State University, 15 November 2011. 

58Karen B. Peetz, Board of Trustees,” Pennsylvania State University, accessed 15 August 2012.  Caroline E. Mayer, “Moving Things Forward,” One, John Hopkins Carey Business School, Spring/Summer 2010.  “Minutes of Meeting, Board of Trustees,” 20 January 2012.

59Board of Trustees Meets, President Erickson’s Remarks,” Pennsylvania State University, 20 January 2012.






60Priorities for Excellence:  The Penn State Strategic Plan, 2009-2010 through 2013-2014/Creating the Plan,” Pennsylvania State University.














62Board of Trustees Meets, President Erickson’s Remarks,” Pennsylvania State University, 20 January 2012.








63Newly Elected Chair of the Board of Trustees Delivers Remarks,” Pennsylvania State University, 20 January 2012.
















64Frazier Provides Update on Independent Investigation,” Pennsylvania State University, 20 January 2012.  Frazier’s remarks echo those made by Erickson in November, when the Special Committee was formed:  “…[We will] form a Special Committee to undertake a full and complete investigation of the circumstances that gave rise to the Grand Jury Report…”  “Board of Trustees Meets; President Erickson’s Remarks,” Pennsylvania State University, 11 November 2011.

65Board of Trustees Meets, President Erickson’s Remarks,” Pennsylvania State University, 20 January 2012.



66Board of Trustees Meets, President Erickson’s Remarks,” Pennsylvania State University, 20 January 2012.











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