When Legal Isn’t Enough: Penn State’s Administrators’ Moral Character Issues

Joe Paterno, head football coach of the Nittany Lions for 45 years, lost his job after failing to report child sex abuse to legal authorities. He did alert proper university authorities.

As you have probably heard by now, Penn State’s illustrious football program is in shambles following allegations that several boys were molested by Jerry Sandusky, former defensive coordinator, in a Penn State facility as part of a program hosted by the school.

The school officials’ decision not to report the assault to the police is disappointing, shocking, and unfathomable for many.

The events are not only an embarrassment to the school, but raise serious issues about the school’s quality of ethics in its leaders. The university fired legendary coach Joe Paterno and several other high-ranking officials since they failed to report the abuse to authorities.

A letter from Penn State University president Rodney Erickson stated his commitment to reinforce the moral imperative of doing the right thing, to lead by example, to be transparent during investigations, to respect the victims and their families, and to provide resources to help prevent future attacks.

Sadly, however, this is not the first time Penn State (and other colleges and universities nationally) has turned a blind eye to sexual offenses. It’s common practice, according to a 2010 report by the Center for Public Integrity.

46 forcible sex offenses were reported at Penn State from 2008-2010 as part of the Clery Act, yet only two were deemed actual offenses by Pennsylvania State Police. No arrests were made.

So the questions are:

How do we ensure that our leaders lead with integrity? That power is held through doing what is morally and ethically correct? That our children are raised in a world of upstanders instead of bystanders and abusers?

How are you starting the conversation in your classrooms or homes? Does one bad act make someone a bad person? How is character fostered, and how can it be shattered? What’s more important: reputation or character?

What can character educators and leaders do to better stress doing what is morally and ethically right, rather than just doing what is legal?

Matthew Davidson, leading researcher and expert on excellence and ethics, posted an interesting and insightful reaction to this case. Read it here.

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Veterans Day – A Teachable Moment

 by Joseph W. Mazzola President & CEO

I had the great fortune of being raised by a loving family. They instilled in me certain values that shaped me into the person I am today. None of the adults in my family had much of a formal education though. My grandfather, for example, came to our country at the age of 10 with about a fifth grade education. He was a water boy on the railroad and later became a shoemaker.

My father never graduated from high school either. He fixed wrecked cars for a living and eventually owned his own shop–“Mazzola’s Body Shop.” It never had running water or central heat. During the winter, he burned coal in a pot-belly stove to warm the place up. I loved hanging out at his shop, and I learned a lot, too. Most people don’t know it, but I’ve painted cars, changed engines, installed transmissions, and I still service my own vehicles. In fact, I’m doing a brake job on my son’s car this weekend.

Oh. I forgot to mention why my dad never graduated from high school. He quit at the start of his senior year to go fight in World War II with his older brothers. You see, service to the nation was just one of the values stressed in our family. Since that was the case, it was an easy decision for me to enlist in the Air Force when I got older, even though it was very unpopular at the time.

Although I planned on doing my hitch and then moving on, I ended up spending more than 25 years in uniform. I did so because I loved being part of something meaningful, I loved working with honorable men and women, and I loved the fact that my organization stressed many of the same values I learned at home: Integrity, Service and Excellence.

Every year in November we celebrate Veterans Day. This year, encourage your students to reach out to veterans in your community. Besides having them thank the vets for their service, have them ask about the core values the vets lived by and how those values impacted their personal character. And, after Veterans Day, have the students share what they learned. I think you’ll find this can be a powerful character-building experience…and that’s what all good character educators look for!

Thanks for all you do to develop young men and women of good character for our world.