Thoughts on PSU as Paterno is Laid to Rest

There are so many thoughts and feelings swirling in me as mourners gather for Joe Paterno’s funeral in State College, Pa., today. One is my wish that I could be there with my son, a recent main campus mechanical engineering graduate. It just wasn’t realistic, considering both our jobs. (He’s now an engineer for a Philadelphia firm — a job I am enormously proud of, for him; a job I am — and I’m sure he is — eternally grateful to Penn State University for.)

I’m also thinking of the culture I knew as a visiting parent, the tugs at my heart looking at a picture like this one, of the Old Main building, thinking of the many trips my son must have taken up and down those steps. No doubt the trips Joe Pa must have taken, too, in his 62 years there.

I’m thinking of the family weekends we attended at my son’s fraternity, the spirit and enthusiasm in the air about promising futures and convictions and pride, the life-size cutout of Joe Pa I remember standing alongside us on at least one of those occasions.

My heart aches for every one of those graduates, every one of their parents, every one of those victims at the heart of the scandal now hanging over the campus, every member of the Paterno family and even every trustee who had to wrestle with whether he or she would or should attend today’s ceremony.

Did Paterno’s firing hasten his death? Probably. Was his termination handled the way it should have been? I don’t believe it was. Was Paterno blameless in all this? Of course not. Erring through omission, not commission, is erring nonetheless.

But I hope, for Penn State’s sake, that the already-controversial investigation now under way into how the crisis was handled takes a long, hard look at the culture Paterno was part of and the system he said he was trying to protect by handing the information over to his next-in-charge. Merrie Spaeth, head of Spaeth Communications Inc., recently addressed the importance of PSU’s culture in this piece written after the scandal erupted. In it, she offers some lessons learned that every organization should take to heart from this tragedy — not the simple ones, like having tighter policies for child-abuse or sexual-harassment reporting in place, but the much deeper ones, like, “What are the unspoken barriers or constraints that affect how we process information and how we act?”

I hope investigators will consider the thinking of someone like behavioral-science expert Darnell Lattal, who talks in this piece about the much-bigger factors than one man’s omission or commission when an organization goes through an ethical breakdown the size and scope of Penn State’s. “Decisions are [often] determined by a phenomenon that Hal R. Arkes and Catherine Blumer call the ‘sunk cost effect,’ ” Darnell writes, “meaning that people are often more influenced by what they have already invested than by factors that should determine the appropriate action.” I think we can all agree there was an element of that going on when certain people chose to go only so far, or to not go at all.

Clearly, Penn State will never be the same. Songwriter Don Henley’s “The End of the Innocence” keeps playing in my head. I just hope, and pray, that the entire world that is Penn State — investigators, new leaders and all — can tread carefully and objectively into this next chapter with a vision for a Happier Valley that doesn’t kill the spirit and the legend and the pride any more than those three entities have already been killed.