School Climate & Safety Opinion

Penn State and the Perils of Loyalty

By Jack Marshall — November 16, 2011 7 min read
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In central Pennsylvania today, an educational institution is reeling, its reputation shredded, its culture suspect. The root cause of the Pennsylvania State University tragedy is alleged sexual abuse of children. But, beyond that, school officials and observers are pondering a seeming breach of common standards of decency—a breach that, if real, can be traced to a disastrous, but predictable, failure of values, led, ironically, by the university’s ethical exemplar, now-former football coach Joe Paterno, a living legend and campus treasure.

What is frightening, or should be, to every teacher and school administrator or board member—indeed, to everyone who places their trust in education at any level—is that the ingredients of this ethics train wreck are abundant in all institutions, and the more secure and eminent the institution, the more abundant the supply.

This is because institutions inspire intense loyalty, and loyalty is that rarity, a dangerous virtue. Few aspects of what most of us regard as good character have caused as much damage over the course of history as loyalty. A prudent institution will recognize this and undertake the delicate task of keeping it within ethical bounds.

The problem of ethics blindness triggered by overzealous loyalty is a predictable challenge in education, but it can be more easily avoided when an institution has prepared its leadership, faculty, and staff to recognize its signs and know how to respond. The belief that an individual can be faced with an unexpected crisis that he or she had never considered possible and instinctively choose the most ethical option is common, naive, and dangerous. In the absence of training, facile reflexes can take over. Blind loyalty is one of these.

In its useful “Six Pillars of Character,” the Josephson Institute, a nonprofit ethics-training organization, places “loyalty” within the pillar of “trustworthiness,” the ethical value most essential to the professions. It is easy to see why. Loyalty makes the existence of families, teams, groups, joint enterprises, and organizations possible. Loyalty may require subjugating one’s own selfish needs and goals to the needs and goals of people and institutions that have earned that loyalty through their support, assistance, friendship, and reliability. Loyalty builds bonds that allow planning and risk-taking, and the construction and maintenance of a mutually cooperative community. Without the presumption of loyalty, trust is impossible, and without trust, no organization can function effectively for very long.

Signs of Sexual Abuse

The Child Welfare Information Gateway, which is run by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families, says on its website that observers should consider sexual abuse a possibility when a child:

  • Has difficulty walking or sitting;
  • Suddenly refuses to change for gym or to participate in physical activities;
  • Reports nightmares or bedwetting;
  • Experiences a sudden change in appetite;
  • Demonstrates bizarre, sophisticated, or unusual sexual knowledge or behavior;
  • Becomes pregnant or contracts a venereal disease, particularly if under age 14;
  • Runs away; or
  • Reports sexual abuse by a parent or another adult caregiver.

SOURCE: Child Welfare Information Gateway

It has a dark side, however. The addition of loyalty to a relationship elevates the object of loyalty in perceived value and to an extent that it can suffocate rational analysis. Loyalty that isn’t absolute is not trustworthy, but loyalty in absolute terms, as trustworthy as it may be, lays the foundation for crises like the one unfolding at Penn State. This kind of loyalty can trump all other values: “My country, right or wrong”; “My company, right or wrong”; “My school, right or wrong.” The mind-set can blot out crucial duties to society and human rights. In truth, such “right or wrong” statements are ethics alarms: Once you think them, step back and do some objective ethical analysis.

That lesson must be part of any school’s or organization’s ethics training program. Consider the kinds of crises that have prompted a reflexive desire in others to close ranks and circle the wagons: the discovery of long-standing wrongdoing by a trusted member of the institutional family; institutional fraud; sexual harassment by a key donor or leader; a faculty member’s well-known but undiscussed substance-abuse problem; or an alleged crime, as at Penn State. So, what are the right responses in these situations? How should such crises be handled by all concerned? Why are openness and honesty essential?

Most of all, schools need to erase, as much as possible, the inevitable fears that decisionmakers will attack the messenger or whistleblower, or cover up a problem by embracing the wrong type of loyalty.

Making the wrong choice is frighteningly common. It is likely that a vast proportion of the casualties in the American Civil War were the result of one man’s misguided loyalty—Robert E. Lee, whose integrity dictated that he join the Confederacy out of allegiance to his home state of Virginia, despite believing that the cause of the South was wrong. But the highest expression of loyalty is not simple allegiance and blind protection against immediate threats. Lee’s acceptance of the offered command of Union forces probably would have brought the war to a rapid end, with Virginia among the greatest beneficiaries in lives saved and devastation avoided.

For loyalty to be a genuine virtue, it must mean more than unswerving allegiance. Loyalty must mean doing what is in the best long-term interests of an entity, organization, or institution. That requires a more complex ethical calculation, as well as courage.

Paterno’s case is instructive, if tragic. He was alerted by a subordinate that a former assistant coach and Paterno associate was seen sexually molesting a boy in the athletic-facility showers. Paterno reported the incident to his superiors, but allegedly took no further action. The effect of his conduct was that other children were endangered, and probably harmed.

Educational institutions must make certain that everyone from the leadership down to the janitorial staff understands what institutional loyalty doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean protecting the organization from accountability for its mistakes and wrongdoing, or those of its employees."

It is possible that Paterno’s loyalty dilemma was complicated by personal loyalty to the alleged child molester, Jerry Sandusky. In a professional context, however, personal loyalties are conflicts of interest, and need to be understood as such. Loyalty to an individual must not be allowed to compete with loyalty to an institution or an employer. The institution must ensure that every person who accepts employment, every professional who accepts the trust of an organization and a profession, must understand and accept that principle at the outset, before any conflicts and crises arise.

Equally vital is to make sure that an institution conveys to its employees the conviction that loyalty to an institution must never be valued more than the duty to be loyal to humanity and human rights above all. It is useful to remember Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and the response of Marley’s Ghost when Scrooge suggests that Marley was “a good man of business”:

“Business! ... Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”

Just as Marley ignored his core loyalty to mankind through his tunnel-vision focus on business, it seems that a single-minded pursuit of football and institutional success, translated as loyalty, caused Paterno and senior university officials to forget their loyalty to humanity. Breaching that loyalty was disastrous for the Catholic Church officials who chose to protect pederast priests rather than their victims; it was disastrous for Nixon White House officials, who protected the president rather than the principles of democracy; and the appearance of such a breach has proven disastrous for Joe Paterno.

Educational institutions must make certain that everyone from the leadership down to the janitorial staff understands what institutional loyalty doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean protecting the organization from accountability for its mistakes and wrongdoing, or those of its employees. It cannot mean that individuals who have served a school long and well have built up a surplus in the ethics bank, engaging in enough good and beneficial conduct that their wrongful conduct is treated as nothing more than account withdrawals.

Finally, educational institutions need to play what I call ethics chess, looking at developing conditions and thinking ahead to how ethical dilemmas are likely to develop. A university icon such as Joe Paterno creates the perfect Petri dish for the growth of an ethical contagion. He had reached the point where his influence and reputation made him a potential ethics corruptor, as his credibility outweighed his trustworthiness. After more than 60 years on the Penn State coaching staff, his devotion to the football program and the university were predictably out of proportion to reality. Ultimately, Paterno became the perfect embodiment of Jones’s First Law, one of the most useful of Murphy’s Laws, which declares: “Anyone who makes a significant contribution to any field of endeavor, and stays in that field long enough, becomes an obstruction to its progress—in direct proportion to the importance of his original contribution.”

All of these factors pointed to a looming catastrophe, though the one that occurred was worse than anyone could have predicted. And at the epicenter of it all was loyalty—a virtue, to be sure, but one that must be judiciously and thoughtfully applied, especially in educational institutions.

A version of this article appeared in the December 07, 2011 edition of Education Week

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