OpEd: Lessons from Penn State Offer a Moral Wake-up Call
The final weeks of the year, stretching from Thanksgiving to New Year’s, offer us all a special opportunity for reflection and renewal. Advent—and the rampant commercialism of the Christmas season—challenge Christians to ponder the genuine meaning of their faith. Thanksgiving prods Americans of all faiths and backgrounds to be grateful for our many blessings and sensitive to the plight of those fellow citizens who live in poverty, many without homes or jobs.
For university presidents, the holidays provide a brief respite from the bustle of campus life. But this year, they also will—or at least should—demand reflection on the responsibilities of leadership.
After six and a half years at Alvernia University, the holidays have become for me a time to be inspired by the examples of humble servant-leaders like faculty member, Polly Mathys, who for 24 years has led our annual Turkey Drive, and trustee and entrepreneur, Steve Elmarzouky, who this year fed over 1,600 at his Queen City Diner. Or by the efforts of student leaders who for over a decade have sponsored Christmas on Campus for local youngsters. Examples of such generous, selfless leadership in service to others abound throughout the Greater Reading community and exemplify the true holiday spirit.
Unfortunately, leadership of a different kind has been in the news in recent months, as the media has provided significant coverage of “college sports scandals.” Probably the most serious is the one close to home at Penn State. To be sure, there is so much we do not yet know about this situation. It is like the Watergate scandal many of us recall from our own college days: who knew what, when did they know it, and whom did they tell (or not)?
But we do know two things for sure. First, rather than just involving minor NCAA infractions or even major violations of athletic rules, this is a genuine scandal, involving horrific allegations of abuse, even assaults, against children, that appear to have been minimized, ignored, or possibly even covered up.
Second, the situation at Penn State is not primarily a sports scandal—though coaches are at the center of the controversies—but rather an institutional scandal. So the lessons are more profound and offer teachable moments for all of us.
We’re not talking about coaches attempting to gain a competitive advantage, players trying to procure some extra cash, or programs trying to win at all costs. We’re talking about abuses of power and moral authority involving leaders well beyond the athletic program, administrators who allegedly did not do the right thing and then had the audacity to pretend otherwise. And there were defenseless victims involved—children—not simply NCAA eligibility rules or team regulations.
Whatever facts come to light, we have all received a valuable wake-up call: we are morally responsible at important times for what we do NOT do, as well as for what we do.
For those of us in leadership positions, there is no room for self-righteousness. We know, with humility borne from painful experience, that it is all too easy to make mistakes.
Even courageous leaders considered heroic role models are far from perfect. They are women and men with ample faults. Some rise to great virtue, some fall far from grace. Yet even the best make errors in judgment or execution.
Historians and biographers as well as the public record demonstrate that even remarkable Americans like Franklin Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, and others memorialized in our nation’s capital had their share of imperfections. Yet visiting the MLK memorial with my family during this holiday season, and reading the stirring selections from his speeches imprinted on the walls surrounding his statue, I was struck by the unabashedly moral tone with which he led. Two passages, one from the walls and one on the memorial’s website, are instructive and inspirational:
‘The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
Alvernia’s mission statement calls on our students and graduates—and, indeed, all of us who serve them—to be “ethical leaders with moral courage.” As we approach the New Year, let us be thankful for the examples of moral courage and ethical leadership we see each day—in our communities and wherever we find it. And let us all resolve always to speak up “about things that matter.”
The Office of the President Staff
Assistant to the President
Francis Hall, Room 212
Francis Hall, Room 212
Mon - Fri 8:00 am – 4:30 pm