Organizational Communication in the News

Case Studies of Organizations and Organizational Communication in the Media

Penn State Leaders Disregarded Victims, ‘Empowered’ Sandusky, Review Finds


The most powerful leaders at Penn State University showed “total and consistent disregard” for child sex abuse victims while covering up the attacks of a longtime sexual predator, according to an internal review into how the school handled a scandal involving its former assistant football coach.

Story length: 1,609 words

Access the full story here. (Also contains video clip summaries, as well as the original 267 page report of the Special Investigative Council submitted to Penn State)

Kristen Lucas (University of Louisville) suggests some key “Takeaways” on the story:

In the movie The Wizard of Oz, the Cowardly Lion startles, flinches, trembles, stammers, whimpers, hides, and cries. And although he is frightened to his core, he travels the Yellow Brick Road to the Emerald City. Along the way, when his smaller and physically weaker companions are threatened, he protects them against palace guards, flying monkeys, and other threats and foes. As the Wizard bestows a token Courage Medal on him, the Lion comes to understand he possessed courage the entire time. To quote an old saying: Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear.”

In 2004, Fredric Jablin, a leading organizational communication scholar, delivered an address on courageous leadership and followership (published in Management Communication Quarterly, 2006). He highlighted the fact that across disciplines such as management, psychology, and philosophy, courage is viewed as an essential quality of good leaders.

In his preliminary work on the topic, Jablin explored the connection between courage and communication. He argued that the communicative acts of speaking up and speaking out are at the very heart of being courageous. That is, even when a position is unpopular or when a disclosure carries with it uncertainty or risk, courageous organizational members find a way and a will to express ideas different from current consensus. Jablin also acknowledged the role of power within organizations (in fact, historically speaking, courage was a trait reserved only for high-ranking members of society). Therefore, he maintained that leaders hold additional responsibilities for courageous communication: sharing stories and convictions that stimulate followers to act with courage, creating a cultural contagion of courage, and encouraging people to speak up, even in the face of risk.

Jablin’s work on courageous communication provides a valuable way to understand the events of the Jerry Sandusky sexual abuse scandal that unfolded at Penn State, beginning in 1998 and being publicly exposed more than a decade later. The internal investigation report (the “Freeh Report” here) concluded that leaders of Penn State actively chose to conceal the abuse for fear of bad publicity. The decision to conceal was unethical. But even more so, it was cowardly.

As events unfolded, university leaders silenced concerns, discouraged lower ranks from communicating courageously, and fostered a cultural contagion of fear that permeated the university. The Freeh Report identifies a “culture of reverence of the football program” and a “president who discouraged discussion and dissent” as barriers to acting in the best interest of the young boys who were abused. Rather than encouraging courageous communication–for example, graduate assistant Mike McQueary’s speaking up to head football coach Joe Paterno about an “incident” in the shower–the report details a pattern of silencing: the university police department’s decision not to file a crime log entry following the first reported sexual abuse case, a janitor’s decision not to report a witnessed rape for fear that the university would fire the entire janitorial staff  in an effort to protect the football program, and Athletic Director Tim Curley and President Graham Spanier’s email exchange determining not to involve outside authorities, but instead to handle the situation internally.

At nearly every turn, there was an opportunity to act courageously. Leaders could have encouraged people with information to speak up by taking seriously early reports and aggressively soliciting additional details. They could have spoken up themselves by taking swift and decisive action against Sandusky and immediately reporting the claims to outside authorities for further action. They could have spoken out by advocating for the rights and welfare of the victims and for tougher enforcement of child sexual abuse in general.

People care desperately about courage. And that is another reason why the Sandusky abuse case and the silence surrounding it is so upsetting. The public wanted to believe the courage displayed by players and coaches on the field also characterized the team’s and the team leaders’ actions off the field. People wanted to believe smaller and weaker companions would be protected by the strong and powerful. They wanted to believe leaders would rightfully judge that the welfare, safety, and innocence of young children are far more important than administrators’ fears of bad publicity. In short, the public felt deeply betrayed that the seemingly brave Nittany Lions had acted so very cowardly. They wanted–and indeed those young boys brutally victimized by Jerry Sandusky needed–Penn State’s leaders to stand up and roar like lions.

Read more “Takeaways” from Kristen and other scholars here.

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