Penn State Trustees: Where Are Our Eagles?

The American flag must never touch the ground -- not because it might become dirty, but rather because even dipping the flag indicates subservience, while a flag on the ground signifies defeat and humiliation.  A lost flag or battle standard indicates a far worse catastrophe; hence Caesar Augustus' lament "Quinctilius Varus, where are my eagles?" after the loss of three legions and their eagle standards in the Teutoburg Forest.  The Romans took the matter so seriously that they came back to get two of those three eagles, and at considerable inconvenience to the German people.   

On November 9 2011, Penn State's Board of Trustees not merely lost but threw away three eagles, and under far more shameful circumstances than defeat by a stronger adversary. They are specifically:

  • (1) The honor and credibility of the Pennsylvania State University
  • (2) The Stagg-Paterno Trophy
  • (3) The Presidential Medal of Freedom

We thought until recently that only Sir Henry Simmerson, the fictional antagonist of Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe's Eagle, could be shameless enough to portray the loss of the King's Colours in an unnecessary battle as a praiseworthy success. Penn State's Trustees have however proved otherwise by not only insisting that they did the right thing on November 9, but also by trying to blame a dead man who can no longer defend his reputation.

People should expect leaders to display characteristics such as level-headedness, integrity, and what the British call a stiff upper lip during crisis situations. When Penn State's Trustees were confronted last November with the indictment of former football coach Jerry Sandusky on charges of sexual assaults on minors, they displayed the opposite characteristics. Their emergency meeting for November 9, which they called in alleged violation of Pennsylvania's Sunshine Act, exemplified their panic. They later admitted that they fired Head Coach Joe Paterno in response to media pressure and without a diligent effort to discover whether he was in any way responsible for Mr. Sandusky's alleged actions. This brings us to the three lost eagles.

The Trustees' preemptory dismissal of Coach Paterno, along with their successful demand for President Graham Spanier's resignation, was a de facto admission that Penn State was somehow responsible for Mr. Sandusky's alleged crimes. I cannot give legal advice but could easily envision the use of this admission against Penn State in any legal action by Sandusky's alleged victims. (This is incidentally why auto insurance companies warn people to never admit fault in a car crash.) The Trustees reiterated this admission this week by saying,

The board found that while Paterno fulfilled a legal obligation to tell his superiors that an employee claimed Sandusky abused a young boy in a shower, it said Paterno should have done more.

The truth is that the employee, Mike McQueary, never told Coach Paterno or anybody else that he actually saw Sandusky abuse a young boy in a shower. He testified instead that he inferred from the circumstances that the crime in question might have happened, and there is an enormous gulf between inference or belief and knowledge. Paterno's superiors, in fact, took action against Sandusky for the conduct of which McQueary could be certain.

More to the point, however, is the unequivocal fact that Paterno followed the policies and procedures the University had in place in 2002: policies for which the University's administration and Trustees were directly responsible. The recent revision of these policies is therefore an open admission by the Trustees that the ones in place in 2002 were not adequate. If there is anybody more contemptible than a superior who scapegoats a subordinate in response to media pressure, it is a superior who fires a subordinate for following diligently the policies and procedures for which the superior was directly responsible.

Now we come to the other two lost eagles. It is a matter of record that the Big Ten planned to add Coach Paterno's name to the prestigious Stagg Trophy, and that Paterno's name was under consideration for the Presidential Medal of Freedom. These honors belonged not only to Coach Paterno, however, but to all Penn State students, alumni, and faculty members just as a Nobel Prize in Medicine-which Penn State researchers may well receive if they cure leukemia-would belong to the entire institution as well as the individuals who earned it. The former two honors were however revoked when the Trustees threw the blame on Paterno as described above.

In summary, Penn State's Trustees began by displaying open panic on November 9. They admitted that they responded to media pressure and rushed to judgment. At least two Trustees told the falsehood that Sandusky's arrest had taken them by surprise, even though most had learned in a briefing almost six months earlier that he was under investigation. They, like the fictional Sir Henry Simmerson, are simply unable to realize that they have perpetrated an unthinkable and unforgivable disgrace by losing the King's Colours, the Emperor's Eagles, or the equivalent under the most dishonorable circumstances imaginable.

The Emperor, who consists collectively of all members of the Penn State community, wants to know only what became of those three eagles and what if anything the Trustees plan to do to get them back. The answer so far has been "nothing," other than to engage public relations firms to defend the reputations of the Trustees as opposed to Penn State. The Trustees have therefore disgraced themselves so thoroughly that they and the University cannot possibly move forward together and cannot have a future together. If they have any sense of honor and responsibility to the University as opposed to themselves, they will therefore resign, allow more worthy individuals to take their place, and hope the world forgets that they were ever Trustees of the Pennsylvania State University.

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.