While few names were left unblemished in former FBI Director Louis Freeh’s report on the Jerry Sandusky sexual abuse scandal released yesterday, the 32-member Penn State University Board of Trustees was highly criticized for its lack of process and surfaced scores of governance issues. The report found that the board did not have regular reporting procedures or committees in place to ensure risk disclosure, which allowed the Sandusky cover-up to move forward unchecked.
Freeh’s report found that four top university officials—former President Graham Spanier, now-deceased football Coach Joe Paterno, Athletic Director Tim Curley and Vice President Gary Schultz—“failed to protect against a child sexual predator harming children for over a decade,” and that the former president “discouraged discussion and dissent.” Further, top university leaders showed “total and consistent disregard…for the safety and welfare of Sandusky’s child victims.”
The investigation revealed for the first time that these top four officials knew about the 1998 investigation into Sandusky showering with a young boy, and that they chose not to report it to police after a 2001 allegation of sexual abuse. They also didn’t report it to the board, since there was a lack of protocol for regular reporting, the investigation noted. The board “failed to exercise its oversight and reasonable inquiry responsibilities,” the report states.
The report further excoriated the board writing that it “failed in its duties to oversee the President and senior University officials in 1998 and 2001 by not inquiring about important University matters and by not creating an environment where senior University officials felt accountable.” The board was also blamed for “overconfidence in Spanier’s abilities to deal with the crisis,” having a “complacent attitude” and a failure to have “regular reporting procedures or committee structures in place to ensure disclosure to the Board of major risks to the University.” The report also found that the board’s removal of Paterno as head coach was “poorly handled, as were the Board’s communications with the public.”
The Freeh report also delves into the atmosphere of the board, noting that some trustees described meetings as “scripted” or that they were “rubber stamping” decisions already made by a smaller group of trustees and Spanier. Most important, it faults the board for not independently assessing the briefing from Spanier and Penn State’s general counsel about the Grand Jury investigation in May 2011, although the Sandusky investigation became public in March 2011, and for not asking for updates at future meetings.
During a press conference held in Philadelphia directly following release of the report, Freeh said, “The board failed in its oversight. They did not create an atmosphere where the personnel and the senior officials were accountable to the board.”
Board Chairwoman Karen Peetz, speaking at a press conference in Scranton, Pa., said, “The board of trustees…accepts full responsibly for the failures that occurred.”
In the wake of the investigation, the board has already begun to make substantial changes to its structure and has vowed to continue to improve the board’s governance. The Freeh report writes that the board redesigned its committees in March, adding one for audit, risk, legal and compliance. The report also lists several suggestions for the board to improve transparency, operations and communications:
- Review the administrative and governance issues raised in the Freeh report, focusing on the structure, composition, eligibility requirements and term limits of the board, the need to include more members who are not associated with the university and the role of the emeriti.
- Review, develop and adopt an ethics/conflict of interest policy that includes guidelines for conflict management and a commitment to transparency regarding significant issues.
- Implement the board’s proposals for revised committee structures to include a committee on risk, compliance, legal and audit, along with subcommittees for audit and legal matters and a subcommittee for human resources as part of the committee on finance, business and capital planning.
- Increase and improve communication between the board and university administrators and the university community
- Develop a critical incident management plan, including training and exercises, for both the board and university administrators.