If Only Penn State Officials Had More Discretion

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By Josh Barro

In today's Wall Street Journal, Bill McGurn blames Penn State's failure to react to Jerry Sandusky's pattern of molestation on university officials being given insufficient discretion. Wait, what? No, really:

How much better off we would be if we could address the real problem at State College -- to wit, senior college officials, including Paterno, reluctant to take real responsibility for those under them. In this, surely, the culture at Penn State is far from unique. At most of our modern campuses, we've replaced leadership with codes, judgment with zero tolerance, and standards of right and wrong with Who Am I To Judge -- and then we are shocked, shocked when scandal erupts.

At Hillsdale College, where this reporter has taught, President Larry Arnn says the increasing resort to complex codes deprives leaders of the discretion they need to make wise and fair decisions. "You can't write prudence and judgment into a code," says Mr. Arnn. "When a code tries to cover every possibility, it ends up shifting power from the college president and trustees to the compliance officers."

Is McGurn following the same story I am? If the compliance bureaucrats had gotten involved here, Jerry Sandusky would have been stopped. The problem is that Penn State officials bypassed their own human resources department, kept their trustees in the dark, and violated federal law in order to avoid a damaging story about child abuse.

The Penn State story is one about abuse of discretion. The Freeh Report paints a picture of a Penn State administrative structure that was more concerned about preserving the football program's reputation than about protecting children or following the law. What Penn State needs to do in the future is make sure its administrators follow the rules, not give them more discretion and hope they behave prudently.

Perhaps McGurn thinks the compliance bureaucracy has convinced university administrators that they have no personal responsibility to stand up against heinous behavior. But Joe Paterno was supposed to be a great example of a wise and upstanding college administrator. He gave millions back to Penn State and took great pride in his players' academic success. If even Paterno couldn't be counted on to do the right thing without oversight, then a model built on discretion isn't workable.

McGurn worries that the reaction to this scandal will be "new bouts of sensitivity training, new guidelines and regulations, and new compliance requirements." Let's hope so -- and let's hope that, this time, the football program actually has to follow them.

(Josh Barro is lead writer for the Ticker. Follow him on Twitter.)

Read more breaking commentary from Josh Barro and other Bloomberg View columnists and editors at the Ticker.

-0- Jul/24/2012 15:34 GMT