The Fatal Backward Step: Penn State's Public Relations Catastrophe

If any soldier should attempt to run away during battle and should set as much as one foot out of his rank, the noncommissioned officer standing to his rear shall run him through with the short sword and kill him on the spot.
  - General order of battle issued by Frederick the Great in 1745

Penn State's board of trustees should have contemplated the King of Prussia's order and the reason behind it prior to their hastily convened meeting of November 9 and subsequent rush to judgment against Coach Joe Paterno and President Graham Spanier.  Be it in war, politics, or business crisis management, it's rarely the initial threat that kills you.  That fatal backward step will, however, do you in almost every time, and regardless of whether the original danger was serious or even real.

An infantry square of King Frederick's era was almost invulnerable to cavalry because the horses -- no matter how brave, drunk, or both their riders might be -- would not run into a solid hedge of bayonets.  If, however, a handful of men, or perhaps even one, gave ground before the charge, the situation changed instantly and disastrously.  A rider on a thousand-pound animal would then crash straight through the resulting opening, his friends would follow, and they would eviscerate the square from inside.  That was why every soldier in the square, noting the questionable reliability of men who joined armies to avoid trouble with the law, unpaid debts, and so on, had to fear his own officers far more than whatever danger might be in front of him.

Now consider the threat that faced Penn State's trustees on November 9.  A former university employee had been indicted for sexually assaulting children, with one of the assaults allegedly taking place on university property.  Administrators Gary Schultz and Tim Curley were charged with perjury for allegedly downplaying Mike McQueary's very explicit accusation of sexual assault, as described on page 6 of this Grand Jury presentment.  Elements of the media found it convenient to accuse Joe Paterno of not doing "enough" to stop Jerry Sandusky's alleged activities and called for him to be fired.

Former President Graham Spanier did exactly what he should have done when the indictments were announced.  He stood his ground by saying that Schultz and Curley had his full support, as opposed to firing them and thus admitting in any way that Penn State was responsible for Jerry Sandusky's alleged actions.  With the benefit of hindsight, to use the phrase that the media used against Paterno, Spanier was 100 percent correct based on Mike McQueary's testimony during these defendants' preliminary hearing.  This testimony discredits utterly the Grand Jury presentment itself, which says unequivocally that McQueary saw Sandusky subjecting the boy to a sexual assault.  McQueary's detailed testimony in the preliminary hearing says exactly and unequivocally the opposite; everything he says he saw indicates that no assault occured.  The principle falsus in unum, falsus in omnibus (false in one thing, false in all) comes to mind immediately with regard to the presentment.

When Spanier said he supported Curley and Schultz, he did not mean he could or would protect them from the legal consequences of a perjury conviction that now looks less likely every day.  He meant he was not going to prejudge the case and, by doing so, create the fatal break in the ranks that could bring down Penn State's reputation.  The board of trustees did that when they convened an emergency meeting -- itself evidence of panic to anybody who knows how to "read" an opposing organization like an army, political group, or business -- in alleged violation of Pennsylvania's Sunshine Act.  The latter was further evidence of panic, and so was the apparent fact that the "do-over" meeting of December 2 violated the board's own bylaws for notice to Trustees (three days required, "a couple" given) and also for a quorum (13 needed, 9 present), although the public notice was adequate.

The trustees therefore turned the Jerry Sandusky scandal into the Penn State scandal by firing Coach Paterno and forcing the resignation of President Spanier.  They therefore admitted on Penn State's behalf, and falsely so, that the entire university was morally culpable in yet-to-be-proven sex crimes against children.  A trustee who asked to remain anonymous in an interview with the Allentown Morning Call admitted that media pressure played a role in the decision.  Agricultural trustee Keith Eckels meanwhile admitted that the board rushed to judgment without exercising due diligence: "He said the board had to act fast last week so the university could move forward, but now it has to take its time making sure it knows all the facts before making other changes."

The soldier in Rudyard Kipling's "That Day" was far more honest with himself and his audience about what he and his comrades had done: "An' we chucked our rifles from us: O my Gawd!"  He also recognized the horrific and unnecessary consequences of turning one's back to the enemy: "But Christ! along the line o' flight they cut us up like sheep / An' that was all we gained by doin' so!"

The media and others similarly began to cut up Penn State's reputation the instant the trustees threw Paterno (and Spanier) under the bus in their moment of panic.  The Big Ten removed Paterno's name from the Stagg-Paterno Trophy, while Senators Casey and Toomey pulled their support for Paterno's Presidential Medal of Freedom.  The trustees have yet to acknowledge that these honors were not merely for Coach Paterno but also for the university to which they owe fiduciary responsibility.  The Medal of Freedom would have quite likely have reflected Paterno's role as an educator and a role model for young adults, and thereby enhanced Penn State's academic reputation throughout the country.

The loss of both these honors in the trustees' moment of self-serving panic underscores the consequences of taking that single but fatal step backward in any kind of confrontation or controversy.  The trustees still have yet to equal the maturity and character of the protagonist of "That Day," who finally took responsibility for his actions:

An' there ain't no chorus 'ere to give,

Nor there ain't no band to play;

But I wish I was dead 'fore I done what I did,

Or seen what I seed that day!

William A. Levinson, P.E. is a graduate of Penn State and the author of several books on business management including content on organizational psychology, as well as manufacturing productivity and quality.