When a solemn John Surma, the vice chairman of Penn State’s board of trustees, announced the board’s termination of university President Graham Spanier and head football coach Joe Paterno on Wednesday, he provided a much-needed voice of leadership to a community in dire need of direction, according to former State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley, who joined Penn State’s faculty earlier this year.
“Over the past couple of days, the university is now sounding the right messages, and it started there,” said Crowley.
Surma stepped into a communications vacuum that combined with the spread of knowledge about the details of the grand jury’s investigatory findings to spark a
much wider interest in the controversy, Crowley said.
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“As a general rule, nobody can tell your story better than you can,” Crowley said. “Some of the early statements and the silence worked to the university’s disadvantage.”
Penn State Faculty Senate member and professor of rural sociology Al Luloff said members of the Penn State community would have benefited from hearing more from their leaders as the crisis unfolded.
“It was pretty unusual that there was no voice being heard out of the administration, either from Dr. Spanier or his staff or his news media people, who are generally pretty quick to get back to the press,” he said. “There was absolutely nothing, and that void was going to be filled by innuendo. Because of absence of communication from those in a position to know, I felt lots of what eventually happened could have been avoided.”
Legal issues could have complicated the university’s response but shouldn’t have caused complete silence, Crowley said. Spanier’s statement of unconditional support for the two administrators charged with perjury exacerbated the public relations dilemma.
“The statement was understandable at one level but not necessarily properly balanced,” he said. “A first instinct by any organization is to defend your own, and so on the one hand, saying that I trust my employees and the action they have taken, that’s OK, but there was this full-throated defense of the two individuals who faced serious charges while only a glancing mention of the interests of the children who are clearly the victims here. Then that was followed by days of silence.”
Crowley also pointed to the last-minute cancellation of Paterno’s press conference Tuesday as another badly handled decision. But he said the university’s biggest mistake could have been made almost a decade ago, when the decision was made to handle internally an alleged eyewitness account of Jerry Sandusky sexually assaulting a young boy on campus.
“Some serious mistakes were made in 2002 when they decided they were not handing this over to authorities and dealing with it in public then,” he said.
An insularity, which by nature surrounds most administrative bodies, could have led to mistakes in judgment, Crowley said.
“The temptation always is to let this work itself out quietly, it won’t get out, and yet more and more you see that information finds its way into the open,” he said.
The most confusing aspect, from a public relations perspective, of the week’s events, was that Penn State officials seemed so unprepared to deal with the results of an investigation they had known to be in the works for years, and that had been public since March.
“When an institution has some forewarning a story is coming down the pike, they have some time to build a game plan, and that empowers some stakeholders to take some action,” Crowley said. “It doesn’t appear on surface the university took advantage of that (knowledge).”
Luloff said it is a widely held view among the faculty that excessive authority given to the administration caused the scandal.
“Penn State is a very top-down place, where power is vested in Old Main,” he said. “We have a very different structure than some universities, in that some universities the faculty and Faculty Senate has more power.”
Questions remain not only for Spanier, Paterno and the others implicated by the grand jury report, but for the board of trustees, Luloff said.
“The board empowered Dr. Spanier and coach Paterno to operate they way they operated, which was, they allowed them to create an empire of sorts,” Luloff said.
Luloff also criticized the board for the timing of Wednesday’s announcement that Spanier and Paterno had been fired, which he said played a role in inciting the riots that ensued.
“The need to get information out at 10:30 at night, in this campus, in this climate, escapes me,” he said. “They could have said they would make the announcement the next morning, which wouldn’t have done nearly as much to fuel the fire.”
Crowley, however, agreed with the board’s announcement of the firing of Spanier and Paterno immediately after its decision.
“The board of (trustees) took decisive action ... to take back the initiative,” he said. “They said loud and clear that there is going to be accountability here, and the decision they made on Coach Paterno in particular is an enormous statement that no one is above responsibility for what has happened.”
Rodney Erickson’s tenure as interim president has started well, Crowley said.
“Erickson has begun a conversation with the entire Penn State community — he sounded a call to move forward, while praying for the children who are the victims here. So I think over the past couple of days the university is now sounding the right messages, the right notes,” Crowley said. “Still, I think there's a long way to go here. The damage that has been created is real and will last for some time.”
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