Once a school like Penn State or Syracuse has gone through the ethical and public relations disaster of a child sexual abuse scandal ... what comes next? How do you fix what’s broken? Can you even think about rebuilding the brand?
Yes ... but it’s tough. It takes character, both for the organization and on a personal level.
Emerging from this kind of crisis means going through three different stages: denial, damage control, and decision. Lots of people, and lots of institutions, never make it through to that third stage.
As someone who’s taken on the responsibility of helping to lead an educational institution (I sit on the University of South Florida’s Board of Trustees, and created the Zimmerman Advertising Program there) I have some opinions about what the trustees at Penn State and Syracuse need to do now. They need to decide what all of this really means. What they’ve learned from the trauma these young people experienced has to shape a brand new mission: Never again.
All of the stakeholders, from the parents of the newest college freshman up to the most elite alumni and the richest donors, need to believe in this new mission. All the students, all the faculty, all the members of the coaching staff, everybody needs to “get it,” based on reality they can see for themselves, that the school is making steady progress toward becoming the kind of place where no one will turn a blind eye toward abuse, ever again.
Right now, I don’t think the stakeholders are close to believing that, because it’s not happening yet.
There are some people who say that what happened at these schools is a perfect chance for us to get our national collegiate priorities straight, and cut back or completely de-fund the major sports programs like football and basketball. That would be a big mistake. For Penn State, and many other schools, sports is a huge part of the brand.
The ability to win on the field doesn’t necessarily make you the right person to lead a school back from a crisis like this.
Other people say we should try to change the whole mystique that surrounds the job of head coach. The idea here is that coaches shouldn’t get treated like kings, shouldn’t have the stature that someone like Joe Paterno had, and shouldn’t be able to put themselves or their staff above the best interests of the school. That may sound like a good idea, but it’s not going to happen in this world. Even if you somehow made these kinds of changes at Penn State (and I don’t think you could) ... a winning coach would just go to another school where he would be treated like a king.
Winning makes people special. If you doubt that, take a look at which jerseys and bobble-head dolls are selling best. That’s the reality of the society we live in: Winning matters. But the ability to win on the field doesn’t necessarily make you the right person to lead a school back from a crisis like this.
Which brings us back to personal character. This is the only viable option for a school in the kind of free-fall that these schools are in. The people who assume leadership roles at these schools, whether inside or outside the sports program, must be people of character. They must raise people’s standards; transform people’s expectations of themselves, just by walking in the room. They must make it absolutely impossible to even consider looking away when you know that something wrong is happening in the organization.
Bobby Stoops of The University of Oklahoma comes to mind. So does John Wooden, the legendary UCLA basketball coach. It’s impossible to imagine either of those guys turning a blind eye to his obligations the way Paterno did.
Some people have integrity so massive that everyone around them automatically starts making better choices in life. Stoops and Wooden are great examples of leaders with that kind of integrity. Are leaders like that easy to find? No. Is that the kind of leadership Penn State and Syracuse need now, in both the academic realm and in the sports programs? Yes. And the sooner, the better.