John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Penn State Redux: What Students Learn When They See Us Not Doing the Right Thing

John Gardner

I have long believed that students can learn from almost anything they see us educators do. We often create learning experiences for students in contexts we may not have thought of as providing instruction for students. Just think of what Penn State students can be learning right now as they learn what all of us have been learning about how their former leaders dealt with the possibility that a fellow employee might be molesting children on University property.

This has brought back for me one of my most powerful learnings of my own undergraduate years—about how my college president would deal with a student (myself) to protect what he thought was the good reputation of the institution.

The year was 1964 and I had just become the Chair of the Student Judicial Council at my alma mater, a small, liberal arts college in Ohio, Marietta College—the oldest post secondary institution in Ohio, with the 16th oldest Phi Beta Kappa chapter in the country.

I was just starting my senior year of college. And I was a very idealistic, purpose driven young man, who was bound and determined to leave a legacy for his college of creating a truly effective, functioning student judicial system, particularly to promote a higher level of academic integrity.

In order to proceed to adjudicate any individual charged with an offense against the conduct code, permission had to be granted by the College President. In this particular year, a charge was made at the very beginning of the term and I had to take this charge to the College President to secure permission to proceed. When the President learned who the person was who was being charged and the potential visibility such a case could have, he denied my permission to proceed. His reason: he had to protect the reputation of the College because it was about to roll out a major fund raising campaign which the President believed this matter could detract from. In retrospect, while the circumstances were very different from the Penn State case, thank goodness, the scenario bore some similarities. Here was the most senior college officer making a decision to protect the reputation of the institution by attempting to prevent something from becoming public that would detract from the image of the institution he was trying to project.

I remember my astonishment at the candor of the President in the rationale he presented. My initial reaction was to find this hard to believe. But I soon concluded that his position was immovable. There was no way I was going to secure his permission. So I decided to accept this reality and cut the best deal I could as fast as I could, right there on the spot. So I told him that in exchange for my acceptance of his decision (compliance=silence), I wanted his assurance that he would not deny me permission for any future case I brought to him that year. He agreed to the deal I offered. And he honored it. But for the rest of my career as a higher educator, I have never forgotten how this first college president I came to know, protected his institution by overlooking something that I believed violated the most important principles of the institution. What I learned also was how to deal to the best of my abilities with such misuse of power, and the importance of setting the best of examples for my students as they observed how I practiced my craft as a higher education leader.

One Comment

  1. Bryce BuntingJuly 25, 2012 at 2:23 pmReply

    This is a great post, John. Few of us realize how much students learn from what they see us do (especially in between class sessions). It is disheartening to see how often our actions and behaviors, particularly at the institutional level, are incongruent with what our stated ideals and values.

    Also, thank you for leading a great spirituality session in Vancouver last week. It is always a great conversation and one which leaves me feeling uplifted about the work I do.

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