Education Opinion

Diversity and the Moral Compass

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — January 20, 2013 4 min read
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This month, January 2013, Martin Luther King Day and the inauguration of our first black president for a second term coincide. There are some of us who lived during Martin Luther King’s lifetime and witnessed his leading with compassion, empathy and courage while following his moral compass as he fought for civil rights. January is also the anniversary month for Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. To consider these three events, we must acknowledge that war and violence has accompanied significant peaceful change in our nation. As a democracy, we have risen above that which divides us and found our way through deep divisions to make progress while unified. All this has been brought back to us vividly by Daniel Dey Lewis’ portrayal of Lincoln. .

Those who read Team of Rivals: the Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, by Doris Kearns Goodwinwere not surprised to see the differences of opinions held by those around the tables and in the offices as the movie unfolded. In listening to the debates, Lincoln found resolve for moving forward. His hand was firm on the moral compass. While our history illustrates, and, in fact, our democracy demands, that differences of opinion make us stronger, we do, sometimes forget.

Let’s look at Penn State. Jerry Sandusky’s lawyers recently argued that the former Penn State assistant football coach should receive another trial because they didn’t have the time to properly prepare for his child molestation trial. The final report, commissioned by the University and conducted by Freeh, Sporkin and Sullivan, called,“The Report of the Special Investigative Council Regarding the actions of Pennsylvania State University Related to the Child Sexual Abuse Committed by Gerald A. Sandusky” led by Louis Freeh, former FBI Director, confirmed that Joe Paterno and the University’s leadership team concealed the abuse and that they did it “repeatedly”.

The summary of findings begins, “Our most saddening and sobering finding is the total disregard for the safety and welfare of Sandusky’s child victims by the most senior leaders at Penn State....” The University President, the senior vice President for Finance and Business, the Athletic Director and the Head Football Coach all knew of the abuse and failed to protect the children from a sexual predator for over a decade. How can this happen? How do leaders lose their moral compass? Such a question is being asked in all sectors these days but it is especially critical for those in our field where children are our business and the public trust is imperative.

The report goes on to reveal that Penn State’s President did not inform the Board of two previous investigations of Sandusky and of a Grand Jury investigation. In so doing, the report concludes he “failed his duties as President.” It also concludes that the Board failed in its responsibilities as oversight and governance. It is suggested that they trusted the President and senior leadership too much. And so, the actions of the leaders allowed the child victims to remain nameless, faceless, and unprotected. The Freeh report states that this choice was driven by a desire to “avoid bad publicity.” Everyone loses when our leaders descend to this as a presiding principle. Leaders must maintain a stronghold on their moral compass and have the courage to do what is necessary.

Jason Whitlock raised an important issue in his Fox Sports Blog on July 13, 2012. Where were the women in all of this? “A female high-school counselor turned Penn State Victim No. 1 over to the proper authorities. In 2007, a female Vice President of Student Affairs, Vicky Triponey, butted heads with Paterno and his football supporters and lost when she tried to investigate fights involving Penn State football players.” He goes on to say, “One of the lessons to be taken from this Penn State mess is that universities need to empower women in their athletic departments. Strong women; women like Pat Summitt, women who aren’t afraid to publicly dislike Geno Auriemma; women who make men uncomfortable.” If there had been women behind those closed doors, perhaps the outcome would have been different, we do know. The larger point is that we need to invite voices of dissent into our decisions. Opposing voices will not confuse or derail us. Even if they don’t change our mind, they will improve our thinking.

Each person who sits at the power table brings different skills, abilities, experiences, and perspectives. Here is a case in which the sameness at the leadership table led them to make terrible decisions that did harm to many children. Had they welcomed other perspectives, unfamiliar ones, even opposite ones, what may have happened is someone might have said, “Are we doing the right thing for the victim?” Surely these folks thought they were doing the right thing for the institution, but they all thought the same. In this case someone didn’t say that, or if they did, they did not say it loud enough.

The auspicious events celebrated this month serve to remind us the leader’s role is to speak out and define the higher ground that called us to leadership in the first place. The nexus is the point at which leadership, the rules, and the leader’s values intersect as moral thought, voice and action. Let us not forget that inviting diversity helps keep our hands on the moral compass.

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