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PSU – Not just about football

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Reading the news this morning, I came away with tremendous dissapointment in the press and their coverage of the Freeh report on the Sandusky matter at PSU.  Yes.. I am dissapointed in Joe Pa.. and the entire administrative team, but I am saddened by how poorly this is being reported. Yes.. he was a football coach..and yes it happened within the football complex, but this is not an issue of football leadership.  Again, this is not about football.  This is about the academic model of leadership..  this about authority and culture, a culture that may need to consider how it should evolve.

Most large universities have a distributed leadership model. Professors are entitled to freedom.. the ability to explore and discover in areas that they (because they are considerd the expert) deem most important to the field of study they work in. Full professors maintain signficant influence and power over the operations of their departments. Department Heads are more facilitative leaders, even servants to the needs of the majority of professors (some heads only serve a short term, or are only called Chairs). Deans lead, but only through budget allocations and position approvals, but much of the day to day operations is delegated. (Do you see where this is going).  Senior administrators have power, but it is culturally used only in signficant matters.  They shape the university over time, but they rarely involve themselves in personnel matters.  There is a culture of empowerment that goes well past anything corporate america has even imaged.   Of course, this culture extends to all areas.. Presidents, Chancellors, Provosts, etc, operate at a level where they delegate most of the issues to Deans, Directors, and yes Coaches.  This is the culture at most universities..not just PSU.

Now, we know this culture has been one of great innovation. It is not surprising that american universities are some of the greatest research engines in the world. This culture of autonomy and freedom has allowed researchers to defy the norms of their field and explore areas outside the traditions of the past and create new products that we all enjoy. Many of these products have some piece of their evolution in a lab somewhere on an University campus. Just ask University of Penn how the world would have been different if not for the ENIAC. So we could argue that this culture should be preserved, but we could also argue that it is a culture that breeds the kind of innovation that Sandusky practices. And, someway we need to control the Sanduskys of the world.

In my practice, I have already seen an increase in hierachial decision making at land grant universities. New colleges have been created. Departments merged. this is a trend brought on by budget issues in some cases, but it is evolving the university culture. A culture change that is not always viewed as positive. The trend raises questions for today’s university presidents, chancellors, provosts and deans. Here are just a few that come to mind this morning.

How do we ensure effective personal conduct of faculty, coaches, and all others and still maintain an empowering culture?

Do I have an obligation to discover the ethical lapses (hopefully less criminal) occuring on my watch?

What organizational systems need to be in place to ensure the safety of all our faculty, staff, students and visitors?

If faced with an incident, what mechanisms need to be put into place to ensure the rights of the vicitms.. and the accused?

That’s enough for this post.. I will end with a message to my PSU friends. You are not alone.. this is not a PSU problem.. it is a higher ed problem. Continue to discover the new PSU you are developing.. continue to be the academic leader you have always been.

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  1. Vince Verbeke  July 13, 2012

    I would work with you or for anytime. Thank you sir.

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