Penn State: What’s Next?

I actually watched part of the Penn State football game Saturday afternoon. And the university — mostly by way of the actions of the players on both teams, coaches, fans and members of the community — handled the situation well. It could have been a debacle. And, if fact, it would have been if the university had allowed the game to become a memorial to Joe Paterno.

Here’s from an NYT article, “100,000 Fans Cheer at Penn State, but Mood is Numb“:

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — The tone for a Saturday football game under a bright sun was born in the darkness of a Friday night vigil at the epicenter of the Penn State campus. Spread across a grassy plain yards from the streets where demonstrators clashed with the police days earlier, several thousand students gathered holding lighted candles, a quickly organized rally in support of sexual abuse victims that concluded when a university bell tower chimed 10 times to mark the hour.

About 12 hours later, more than 100,000 fans descended on Beaver Stadium for Penn State’s game with Nebraska, arriving in a mood that was less than celebratory and noticeably subdued. For decades, fall Saturdays at Penn State have provided a chance to see Joe Paterno lead one of the nation’s most successful football programs. On this day, however, it was an opportunity to witness the extended university community wrestling with its conscience. The ritualistic tailgating went on as usual — adults drank beer and children threw footballs back and forth — but the numbing effects of a wrenching week of shock, scandal, resignations and recrimination were evident at every turn.

Now for Penn State, what’s next?

Here’s an interesting perspective in the NYT, “Some Lessons in Damage Control“:

While the turmoil at Penn State has been the academic equivalent of a Category 5 storm, it will probably not have much long-term impact on the university, experts say.

Certainly, it will take years, perhaps a decade, to resolve the fallout from the sexual abuse scandal that has engulfed the football program — including the university’s own investigation, the likely lawsuits and possible action by the Department of Education and the N.C.A.A. And there may be months of new revelations, resulting in hitches in fund-raising, athletic recruiting and even admissions.

But citing other universities’ experiences with crises, many higher education officials and crisis-management specialists predict that the effects will not last a year.

“From other situations where universities have had what I’d call Category 5 crises, like the Texas A&M bonfire collapse or the Virginia Tech shootings, history suggests that even if there are short-term effects on donations, applications or recruiting, they fade fairly quickly,” said Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president at the American Council on Education.

In 2007 at Virginia Tech, where Seung-Hui Cho’s horrific shooting rampage left 33 dead and prompted a barrage of criticism of the university for neglecting to notify the whole campus as soon as the first two victims were killed, both admissions and fund-raising were actually stronger the following year, and have only strengthened since.

“It might sound trite, but prospective students and their families saw on TV a united student body and incredibly supportive alumni population working together with strong university leadership,” said Larry Hincker, associate vice president for university relations at Virginia Tech. “It was painful and stressful, but the institution kept moving in the right directions, dealt openly with problems and shared our experiences with others.”

Duke University was shaken in 2006 by rape accusations against three players on the men’s lacrosse team; the charges were dropped the next April, but not before the campus and its athletes endured a firestorm of negative publicity. Early decision applications in the fall of 2006 dipped somewhat, but there was no dip in regular-decision applications, and in the spring of 2007, when high school seniors were making their choices, the university’s yield was actually higher than in the previous year.

“In all the information sessions I did that season, there was only one time when anyone raised a question about it,” said Christoph Guttentag, Duke’s admissions director. “Most people saw it for what it was, which was an issue that wasn’t going to have any significant effect on their child’s career at Duke.”

For many, the Wednesday night scenes of Penn State students rioting in support of Joe Paterno, the football coach who was fired that evening, brought to mind student protests after the September 2000 firing of Bob Knight, the hot-tempered longtime Indiana University basketball coach. On learning that Knight had been dismissed, thousands of student protesters marched on the president’s home. There was an effigy burning and other small fires, and some students were arrested.

Some alumni then withheld their donations. Although Indiana had robust overall donations the year of the firing, giving to athletics that year dropped to about $7 million, from about $8 million the previous year.

“Bob Knight was a polarizing figure,” said Mark Land, a spokesman for Indiana University. “There were people who thought he was unfairly treated, but there were also people who said, ‘I will never give as long as you employ him.’ ”

Of course, the scandal may play out differently at Penn State, especially given how long prosecutors say the sexual abuse went on.

“I’ve not seen anything on this scale, where the leadership’s been on notice for 10 years that something was going on, and took no action,” said Harlan Loeb, who is in charge of the United States crisis and risk management practice at Edelman, a public-relations firm. “That has to have a big effect on trust and reputation.”

Well, we’ll see. Something tells me it is going to take considerably longer than a year for happy times to return to Happy Valley. It took my alma mater and former employer Kent State more than 30 years to move on from the events of May 4, 1970, when four students were killed by the militia on that campus. Just because the national news media packs up and goes home doesn’t mean that the story is over for those directly or even indirectly involved.

And I recall a former associate at BFGoodrich who had this perspective anytime we were involved in a tough situation, a crisis real or imagined. He said it was like being pecked to death by a duck.

Folks, the ducks have descended on Penn State.

 

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