Cloistered Penn State Program Causes Crisis

It wouldn’t be going out on a limb to say that Penn State University has a monumental crisis on its hands. The revelations of alleged sexual abuse by Jerry Sandusky, Joe Paterno’s defensive coordinator for 22 years until he retired at age 55 in 1999, has now put the university in a defensive position. That’s readily apparent: Paterno’s weekly press conference scheduled for today has been canceled, not to be rescheduled. But the university and Paterno will have to face the media sooner or later.

While this crisis is indeed extreme in nature—if these allegations are true one could only imagine what the victims and their families have gone through—there is one communications lesson to be learned from this: instilling institutional transparency is critical to preventing and mitigating crises. Fifteen years ago, when people started to take notice of Sandusky’s actions, Joe Paterno was PSU, and he wielded just as much power (or more) as a university president did. It has been all about winning football games and maintaining the program’s status quo. And there was a lot of pressure to do so. It’s clear that no one—including the graduate assistant who said he saw Sandusky in a shower sexually assaulting a young boy—and the higher ups that he told about the incident, were willing to go directly to the police to have Sandusky arrested. That’s what happens in such a closed organization, where one person is king. People lose a healthy perspective of their actions, or in this case, inaction.

–Scott Van Camp

  • John From Texas

    One of the worst SIDs in the country. Protected Paterno and that program to a fault for far too long.

  • Laura Bower, APR

    The University has forfeited the opportunity to tell its own story and is exacerbating the situation by shielding Coach Paterno from the media. This is a crisis communications case study in what not to do.

    Paterno must face the media, apologize to the victims and their families and take accountability for what happened on his watch. Period.