16 years of good work and then, poof, it’s all up in smoke. Penn State’s President is asked to resign. There’s lots of angles one can take on the whole Penn State story and, goodness knows, the press is covering them and then some. But I haven’t seen anything on the whole issue of university governance and as a fellow president who thinks about governance on a daily basis, I have some thoughts on the subject. I wrote last night about Paterno’s “advice” to the Board: you don’t need to worry about me anymore. I’ll step down when the season is over. Move onto something more important. Well, how’d that work?
First of all, there is nothing more important to Penn State right now than the scandal.I’m not sure how Joe Pa didn’t get that, but more critically, had the Board asked Coach for his advice about what they should or should not be discussing?Not likely. Listening to the press conference with the trustees last night, one thing was clear: the trustees are now in charge. Was anyone else in the room? Nope. On what basis did you decide to not let coach finish the season? We thought it was in the best interests of the university to do what we did. Period. End of story. The Board has a job to do, the president has a job to do and the Coach has a job to do and after last night, it was pretty clear it was no longer the coach’s job to run the university.
One thing I continue to wonder about is what did the president (now ex-president) share with the Board in 2002. The job of a university president is a high risk vocation. The average tenure these days has grown all the way to six years I think. There are lots of reasons why we don’t last. In some cases, the fit between the skills of the incoming president and the needs of the university turns out not to be a very good match. In other instances, presidents have ambitions to move onto the next best thing rather than finish what they started. And in cases like the one we have just witnessed, some incident or series of incidents (almost never this big) disrupts the tenure and it’s just time to go. In my experience, however, if one pays sufficient attention to matters of governance, the risk of these incidents ending a presidency is greatly diminished. Back to my question. What did the president ever tell the Board in 2002? Did he put them on notice? Did he seek the advice of his Board Chair or the Executive Committee? I can tell you that Boards hate to be surprised. They don’t like bad news, but they sure hate bad news that surprises them. If I had to guess, I would say that President Spanier never had any discussion of the incident with anyone on the Board. If he had, two things would be different. First, he would have been advised not to keep this incident secret. And second, if he had consulted, the Board would not have felt like he needed to go. I suspect they felt they had been left in the dark and, like I said, that’s not a place any Board wants to be.