Monday, July 23, 2012

From Penn State Altoona: Teach-In on The Culture of Cover Up and Failures of Governance

In my role as Chair of the Penn State University Faculty Senate, I have been writing about the crisis of governance at the university that resulted from the arrest and eventual conviction of a former member of the Penn State Football Team coaching staff on charges of sexual misconduct with little boys over an extended period of time.  In the course of the criminal investigation outside investigators denounced the senior administration of the University for covering up these activities for well over a decade.  That cover up, it was suggested, was made possible in part by a governance culture that encouraged the vesting of uncontrolled and unaccountable power in administrators, and in the case of the athletics programs, of  four of the most senior administrators at the university.  And thus the governance crisis. (For my commentary see,, e.g, In Anticipation of NCAA Sanctions Against Penn State: Asymmetric Process in the Service of Gesture; Removing the Paterno Statue--Statement of President Erickson; Senate Council Meeting to Consider the Senate's Role in Responding to the Freeh Group Report; Re-Imagining the Relationship Between Board of Trustees and University Faculty Senate: An Interim Report and Request From its Chair; Drawing the Wrong Lessons From the Sandiusky Scandal for Institutional Reform and Athletics: John Feinstein on "The Lesson of Penn State"; Statement of the Penn State University Faculty Senate Chair and Chair-Elect on the Release of the Freeh Group Report; Penn State Prepared for the Release of the Freeh Group Report; Remarks on Assuming Duties as Chair of the PSU University Faculty Senate).

(Pix from Ralph H. Russo, Penn State Football Slammed With NCAA Sanctions, ABC News July 23, 2012 "Penn State Office of Physical Plant workers cover the statue of former football coach Joe Paterno near Beaver Stadium on Penn State's campus in State College, Pa., on Sunday, July 22, 2012. The university announced earlier Sunday that it was taking down the monument in the wake of an investigative report that found the late coach and three other top Penn State administrators concealed sex abuse claims against retired assistant coach Jerry Sandusky. (AP Photo/Centre Daily Times, Christopher Weddle) MANDATORY CREDIT; MAGS OU")

Faculty members at the university have tried to find ways to understand the resulting administrative crisis.  Indeed, the failures of university governance provides a rich source of materials for theorizing governance in complex organizations deeply embedded in webs of regulations and strong stakeholder cultures.  One of the more interesting efforts occurred on the Altoona campus of the University. There, in early December 2011, the faculty hosted a "Teach-In."  My guest blogger, Nicholas Rowland, participated.  Well before the distribution of the Freeh Group  Report or the decision by the NCAA and Big Ten, Professor Rowland, relying (fortuitously) on the week's readings in his class on Social Theory, produced an intervention in the "Teach-In" that is worth considering now.

The organizers of the Teach In described it in the following terms:

A Teach-In open to all Penn State Altoona students, faculty, and staff will be held on Thursday, December 1, 2011 from during the noon common hour in the Edith Davis Eve Chapel. Faculty speakers will include Sam Findley, Dave Parry, Nicholas Rowland, Julia Hudson-Richards, and Lauren Jacobson.

A description of the event follows:

The events of the past several weeks have shocked the Penn State community and changed many of us forever. We are saddened and confused as to how the events alleged could have transpired at our university, one that has stood for the core values of integrity and "success with honor." As we mourn for the victims of the allegations, we also feel let down by some of our leaders and concerned for the future of our university. These are just some of the questions, thoughts, and emotions that all members of our Penn State community - students, faculty, staff, alumni, friends, and fans - are experiencing.

As your faculty, we take our educational mission very seriously and want to offer our collective expertise to help you grapple with these issues. Therefore, we invite you to attend a teach-in during the Thursday common hour on December 1. We will discuss the intertwined fates of ethics and large institutions. Many of you will work at large institutions, and you may be involved in or witness situations that will present ethical and moral dilemmas. How will you behave? We hope to equip you with the knowledge and insight so that, should you ever be called to action, you will act decisively and appropriately.

Briefs will be delivered on the following topics:
A few whistleblowers in crisis situations, and what happened to them.
Corporate ethics: treating people as ends in themselves, or means to an end?
Large organizations and crisis (mis)management
Shame, abuse, masculinity, and collegiate athletics
Through the victim's eye: perspectives on traumatic events

  (Pix courtesy Nicholas Rowland)

Nicholas Rowland contributed the following, insights worth considering now:
Teach-in, December 1, 2011

I will devote my portion of the teach-in to the following question: If there was some sort of a cover up, then where did it come from?

I will briefly describe two lines of research about organizations that might help us to think about the recent events at PSU in a new light.

The first is a relatively new insight from psychology and this insight is about the loyalty of persons in leadership positions; I will describe how one’s deep loyalty for a large organization might allow them to act in unethical ways that result in organizational mismanagement. The second is relatively old insight, dating back to 1911, from sociology and this insight is about how becoming a leader, especially of a prominent organization, can change you; about how any of us would be changed in this way upon becoming a leader.

I will begin with the psychological explanation and then follow that with the sociological explanation.

A new book from psychology titled Blind Spots: Why We Fail To Do What’s Right and What to Do About It is published by Princeton University Press and it offers some clues to makes sense of the recent events at PSU. The two authors, Max Bazerman and Ann Ten-Brunsel, proposed a new concept; what they call “motivated blindness.” It goes like this: leaders might be so loyal – loyal, in this case, to a fault – that their loyalty to the organization “blinds” them to the seriousness of their actions when rules are violated. Quoting the authors, “rather than a defense of unethical behavior, motivated blindness offers a psychological explanation of how unethical behavior may come about.” Now, loyalty is a quality usually regarded as a virtue. However, thanks to this line of research, we can now also see how, in certain situations wherein loyalty is to taken to an extreme, it may actually discourage people from behaving ethically or reporting unethical behavior; and, I must add, this seems especially true if acting in an ethical way has the potential to tarnish the reputation of the organization they are so loyal to.

I hope you can all see it by now; the irony of what I am describing to you. In an effort to protect an organization, a leader is capable of doing – or not doing – quite a lot, and all in the name of loyalty. However, as we may hypothesize, it is loyalty that, if taken to extremes and if infractions mount over time, can result in exactly the what it was designed to avoid; in other words, in their effort to avoid tarnishing the reputation of the organization by acting unethically or covering-up unethical behavior, the leader ultimately and unavoidably ends-up tarnishing the reputation of the organization they are so loyal to. Thus, sometimes, it is from deep loyalty that unethical behavior is born.


Now we shift gears to sociology; with psychology, we started with a new book; with sociology, we’ll start with an old book.

A young sociologist, Robert Michels penned his most famous work in 1911 on the laws of leadership. His ideas about leadership constitute, and I quote “one of the great generalizations about the functioning of mass-membership organizations” and Michel’s ideas help us to make some sense of the recent events at PSU (cited from Farganis, Readings in Social Theory, 2009, 199).

First, he observed that for purely functional and logistical reasons, only a relatively small number of people become leaders of organizations (199).

Second, he observed that leaders tend to take-on more power than members of the organization that selected them, and once entering into a leadership position, “they tend to remain there for a long time and become relatively impervious to influences from below” (199).

From these two simple observations, Michels’s great insight is born: “leaders gradually develop values that are at odds with those of the members” because

the leader’s position is different. For the [leader] … the organization is usually a full time job, or at least a major part of his or her work. Especially if the organization is big and powerful …, these officers receive money, power, and prestige from their positions, and often have the chance to belong to a higher realm of other elites. … It is not surprising, says Michels, that the values of such leaders become subtly corrupted. The leader becomes less concerned with the interests of the rank and file … and more concerned with … preserving their organization … (200)

When related to ethics (that is, what’s right and what’s wrong), the implications are obvious. In effect, for some leaders, the traditional difference between right and wrong drawn from ethics and moral philosophy can be subtly displaced, sometimes very gradually over a long period of time, by an alternative paradigm for decision-making, on in which what is now right and wrong becomes a question of “what is best for the organization as a whole over time?” or, put another way, “what will help to preserve the organization?” This shift in ethical reasoning creates precisely the same set of circumstances as was found in the psychological explanation of unethical conduct. Acting unethically or failing to report the unethical behavior of others can be construed by leaders as doing what they perceive to be in the best interests of the organization over the long haul. Ironically, what can spring forth from the best of intentions creates precisely what it was meant to avoid; in other words, in their effort to preserve the reputation of the organization by acting unethically or covering-up unethical behavior, the leader ultimately and unavoidably ends-up damaging the reputation of the organization they sought to preserve. Thus, sometimes, it is from a deep desire to preserve or improve an organization that unethical behavior is born.

Ladies and gentlemen, in conclusion, I am suggesting nothing less than this: it is sometimes, from their deep loyalty to the organization, or … perhaps, in their efforts to preserve and enhance the organization’s reputation, that we sow these dark deeds.

Thank you.

These ideas provide substantial insight in the context within which Penn State appears to have been disciplined within the larger community seeking to protect its own interests while appearing to satisfy the needs of important constituencies whose interests might be adverse.  It also suggests the potential and limits of shared governance in complex organizations, where the costs of consultation in organizations marked by asymmetric power relationships tends to shape both the rhetoric of shared governance (or in the European sense of comitology) and its substantially diminished reality.

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