Penn State President Fumbles the Ball on Opening Drive

Newly-installed Penn State president Eric Barron issued a heartfelt plea to the vast Penn State alumni recently appealing for “civility” in the discourse surrounding the still swirling controversy concerning the way Penn State’s board of trustees mishandled the Sandusky crisis. This desperate entreaty, perhaps more than anything else, is all the proof you need that Yale Management professor Jeffrey Sonnenfeld was — and remains — dead wrong in his woefully naïve assertion that the Penn State board’s decision to move on rather than fight was the correct choice.


As I wrote at the time in response to Prof. Sonnenfeld’s op-ed piece, you simply cannot “move on” until a crisis is actually resolved. To attempt to do so prematurely is a common mistake often made by those inexperienced in the exigencies of real world (as opposed to ivory tower) crisis management, and leaves the affected parties mired indefinitely in the third of four crisis stages: the Chronic Stage, which is where Penn State still finds itself today. Typically, those who argue for moving on prematurely do so because they are incapable of figuring out how to resolve the crisis and simply want to pull the covers over their heads until the nightmare goes away. It doesn’t work, and this simple math explains why: if the crisis had been resolved successfully in 2011, as it could and should have been, we wouldn’t still be discussing it some three years later. And the fact that passions continue to run high so long after the fact, indicate the embers will not die down anytime soon. Appeals like President Barron’s only serve to underscore that sore point.

But what no one has addressed following President Barron’s cri de coeur is what suddenly transpired to cause him to issue it in the first place? In my view, his message bordered on the sort of urgent plea you are likely to hear from, say, a city mayor trying to calm tensions following a night of civil unrest in a town, especially his YouTube video accompanying the mass digital mailing. Those types of civic appeals are usually as heartfelt as Dr. Barron’s, and generally have the same effect: none.

So, what would prompt the man, only two months into office, to reach out in such a needy manner? Did the various groups and individuals who favor a realignment of the board suddenly stage a mass sit-in in his office? Was there some hostile confrontation on campus? Name-calling? Egg-throwing? I am not aware of any of these things occurring.

Or, did the “old guard” — the entrenched board members who had a hand in the events of November 9, 2011 — pressure him to address the issue in this way, perhaps seeking their own solace? Did they think they could use Dr. Barron’s good offices, pure hands and clean slate to broker a peace and buy silence? If so, their instincts were right that he was the man who could have done it, but their methods were wrong. (I’ve asked this simple question before, but seriously, who advises these people?)

With the sole exception of the night Coach Paterno was summarily fired with a cold, impersonal late night phone call, which directly led to rioting and property destruction in downtown State College, those who oppose the board’s spasmodic kneejerk reactions have been nothing but civil. I have followed this quagmire closely since it first unfolded and personally am unaware of any incivility that would prompt Dr. Barron to react in such a way today, especially since he is so new – just two short months – on the job.

Once during a whistle-stop campaign tour as then-President Truman lambasted a “do-nothing Congress” to a large crowd amassed on the train tracks, a loud voice rang out, “Give ‘em hell, Harry!” Truman responded, “I don’t give ‘em hell. I just tell the truth and they think they’re in hell!” 

The inconvenient problem for the entrenched handful in power is that these dissenters have been effective in gaining a platform and an army of active followers, making the old guard think they’re in hell. For example, the dissenters played within long established rules and over a three-year period, systematically removed and replaced a total of nine alumni board members with like-minded individuals who seek answers to legitimate questions, apologies for poor decisions made in the past (including a long overdue apology to the Paterno family), and a strategic proactive plan to finally reject and disassociate the school from the fact-challenged Freeh Report, and to try (while there is still time) to correct and reverse the unwarranted NCAA sanctions.

Most egregious to anyone who views this soap opera objectively is how the old guard board is now trying to rewrite long established rules about how many alumni members can serve thereon. Instead of the current nine, one suggestion put forward wants to reduce the number of alumni board members by one third. History books are filled with examples of power-hungry dictators over the centuries that tried to change pesky, inconvenient rules to better serve their own purposes and to keep themselves in power. Those same history books also report on how those moves ultimately backfired and resulted in chopping blocks being used to remove heads of state. (Pun intended).

It was particularly disappointing that Dr. Barron wrote, “We are likely never to have the full story.” I disagree. I have been managing crises of all kinds for more than 35 years – some involving major universities, and many far more serious and complex than the one that unraveled at Penn State, including several involving ghastly fatalities, and one that involved the deaths of several very young, innocent children. Many of those crises subsequently required lengthy and thorny investigations, some civil and some criminal. And I will state categorically that it is possible to “have the full story,” provided you know what you’re doing and are not afraid to go after the truth. But I have seen no evidence in the past two and-a-half years that the old guard trustees have any interest or inclination to pursue the “full story,” and you can draw your own conclusions why not.

Moreover, given that Dr. Barron has been on the job a scant two months, are we to believe that he has delved into this morass sufficiently to draw his combustible conclusion in such a short period of time? What has he done to satisfy his own curiosity? What is his position on the various legal matters currently wending their way through the judicial process, which may upend some “settled” issues? What brick wall has he encountered to conclude “We are likely never to have the full story?” And if that truly is his position, what questions thus remain unanswered in his mind that keeps the story less than “full”?

There are ways that President Barron could be most effective in helping the University and its various interest groups turn the corner and actually put the crisis in the rear view mirror, but this sort of theater and embarrassing public appeal is not one of them. And, the longer this “moving on” dramedy fiasco persists, the worse the situation will become, no matter what Prof. Sonnenfeld deludes himself into believing. And the longer President Barron takes his counsel exclusively from those who had a hand in the events of November 2011, the greater the chances that he will continue to view events with a jaundiced eye, and deem legitimate critique as hostile rather than helpful. And that would be most unfortunate for everyone.

Not to be overly dramatic, but this country was founded on the principle of free speech and this is, at its core, a free speech issue. The dissenters have a right to be heard. In the absence of any actual evidence of incivility, President Barron’s appeal borders on “prior restraint,” for which there are no grounds. But the Gordian Knot he has cleverly woven makes this a no-win situation for dissenters: If they remain silent, no answers will be forthcoming; if they continue their public probing, they will be labeled uncivil rabble-rousers…and no answers will be forthcoming.

If the public relations flaks that first advised the school to enlist the services of Prof. Sonnenfeld as a way to change the discussion are also behind President Barron’s appeal, this will not end well, in my assessment. I believe it will further widen the already gaping gulf between those who seek answers and those who are determined to keep mute.

Full disclosure: I do not know President Barron, but I welcomed his appointment if for no other reason than it marked the end of Rodney Erickson’s damaging term. However, it turns out we have a mutual acquaintance, a highly regarded business professor at another leading university, who mentioned me to Dr. Barron in a private meeting they had last spring. I was told Dr. Barron expressed an interest in learning my views in more detail, and I was asked to send him a copy of my most recent book on crisis communications, which contains a chapter detailing a full analysis of the Penn State crisis, along with a recitation of all the crisis management errors that were made by the board. I did so last March, accompanied by a two-page letter offering my assistance. Toward the end of my letter I wrote:

“You are assuming leadership of a great university at a pivotal time in its more than 159 years of existence. And because of that, you are uniquely positioned to get the school’s reputation back on an even keel. The past several years have not gone well for the school or its alumni, who have suffered with each and every blunder the (board) made; but the damage is reversible. I believe that is the reason [name withheld] urged me to contact you directly.”

I never received a reply. Nevertheless, my offer of assistance stands.

I believe President Barron’s recent appeal was misguided on several levels, including its intended audience. But I also recognize – and so should you; this is important! – that Eric Barron reports to, and takes his marching orders from, the board of trustees, and is limited in what he can do or say, at least publicly. And especially while he is so new to the post.

Let’s be clear, at least metaphorically: President Barron took the kick-off deep in his own end zone on July 1. Both sides on the field wanted him to score; they cleared the way with effective blocking, and he had the chance to dash to victory just 100 yards away. But, along the way, he fumbled the ball.

However, I am willing to give him another chance to carry the ball.  And so should you.