Leadership: Bearing Responsibility and Answering Questions

November 10, 2011

I watched last evening’s press conference in which the Penn State Board of Trustees announced that Graham Spanier was no longer the president of the university and that Joe Paterno was no longer the head football coach.  In the past I’ve been an admirer of both Spanier and Paterno, but with many others I have grave doubts about their actions in this erupting revelation of sexual molestation.  I want to know much more about what they knew, and when, and what they did next (and didn’t) as they learned what they did.

But last evening, my attention was especially drawn to John Surma, the Board’s Vice Chair, who read the announcement and then answered dozens of questions.  In my mid 30s, I came to be less interested in castigating those in leadership positions, and more interested in thinking through what I would have done had I been in their shoes.  That shift led inexorably towards my coming to be in a succession of leadership positions.

As the press conference began, I was certain that it had to contain the news that Spanier was no longer president and Paterno no longer the head coach.  I would have been stunned had the Board decided anything different.  But how would that news be conveyed, and what more would we learn?  I thought Surma did a very good job, though watching his face you could see that he was in great discomfort.  He could not find a comfortable posture for his mouth and jaws; he kept stretching those lower facial muscles and grimacing.

Surma and the Board were bearing responsibility.  Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt:  none of them knew anything about this terrible series of events until a few days ago.  They were in the dark.  They had a legendary  coach who personified excellence, and they had a university president they regarded (and others too) as superb.  And now they had a horrible mess to deal with.

Surma said, carefully, “Graham Spanier is no longer the president,” and “Joe Paterno is no longer the head football coach.”  “Effective immediately,” was in there somewhere.  Surma did not say that Spanier or Paterno had resigned; he did not say either had been fired.  We can surmise that Paterno did not resign, since he earlier in the day he had tried to pre-empt Board action by announcing he would retire at the end of the season.  We don’t know whether Spanier resigned or was fired.  I don’t know whether we will come to know, and doubtless there are different contractual obligations for both Spanier and the university that turn on whether he resigned or was fired.

Surma was right not to say, but to use the phrase he did.  He needed to signal that the university was moving on, that there would be a new president and a new football coach.  He named interim appointments for both positions to place the responsibilities of those roles in new, untainted hands.

Surma needed to say that the university would restore its core functions as well as it could as quickly as it could.  And he needed to say something else, and did: that the investigations would continue, with the university cooperating in those investigations.

And then he needed to say nothing else: nothing.  At that he succeeded, even though reporters tried question after question to get him to say more.  Avoiding answering those questions was an important and right thing for him to do at that moment, but I’m sure it is what made the press conference especially difficult.  In answer to nearly every question about why the Board had acted as it had, what its thinking was, what conclusions it had reached, he used the phrase “best interest of the university.”  He spoke of the “totality of the situation,” or words to that effect.  These are non-answers in a way, and no doubt frustrating to reporters and observers, but they were the right answers.  Those words said as much as the Board could say with clarity and truthfulness.

I believe in as much disclosure as possible.  I believe in answering questions that are asked — and in answering the obvious questions even before the question is asked.  But there are times when saying more is not the best thing to do.  I don’t know what reasons Surma would give for not saying more, but I imagine that he didn’t say more because there is a great deal that he and other Board members do not know, and he didn’t want to speculate in any way about those unknowns.  What he and the Board had come to realize is that whatever the answer to those questions, the university needed a new president and a new head football coach immediately.  Surma needed to convey that it had made those changes effective immediately.

What did Paterno know, when did he know it and what did he do?  What did Spanier know, when did he know it, and what did he do?  We can only think that there is a great deal not yet known about those questions.  Those questions are important to pursue.  As we know the answers we will know whether Spanier and Paterno should have been fired or should have been allowed to resign.  But whatever the answers, they weren’t necessary to reach the conclusion last evening that new leadership was necessary.

Surma bore responsibility and answered the questions he could.

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About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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