A yearlong investigation by Spotlight PA and the Centre Daily Times found deep-rooted flaws in Penn State’s once-praised system of compliance offices and reforms implemented in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal.
In “Missed Conduct,” the newsrooms uncovered rampant distrust in the policies and fears of retaliation. For nearly two years, the unit Penn State created to hold itself to the highest ethical standards struggled to handle behavior it was designed to prevent.
In August, Spotlight PA hosted a virtual panel on the project, continuing problems at the university, and possible solutions. Panelists included Barry Dyller, a lawyer with Dyller and Solomon specializing in Title IX and civil rights, and Eugene DePasquale, a former Pennsylvania auditor general who audited Penn State’s policies in 2017.
Spotlight PA invited Penn State leaders to participate in the virtual conversation and provide the university’s perspective. The university did not respond. However, for “Missed Conduct,” Penn State provided the following statement:
“As a predominantly decentralized, large and complex organization, the university’s mechanisms for responding to reports of wrongdoing and reporting on outcomes of the university’s handling of such reports have grown organically throughout its history as needs have been identified,” a university spokesperson wrote. “Following internal and external examinations and audits of the university’s previous practices, new policies, protocols and people have been put into place.”
Here are some takeaways from the August conversation:
Pa. open records loophole hinders transparency at Penn State
Penn State’s status as a state-related university — a classification also shared by Lincoln University, Temple University, and the University of Pittsburgh — makes it largely exempt from Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know Law, which requires state and local government agencies to make most records public upon request.
DePasquale called the universities’ exemption from the law frustrating. Being subject to the open records law would not make personal health information or other private information such as home addresses public, he said. Instead, the law would provide public insight into how the schools spend taxpayer dollars.
For example, the state legislature sends hundreds of millions of dollars to the state-related universities each year to subsidize the cost of tuition for students who are residents of Pennsylvania. But tracking how the money is spent is difficult given the legal carve-out.
When Pennsylvania’s open records law was being rewritten in the late 2000s, Penn State argued that widening public access to its spending would make the institution less competitive, hinder its ability to invest its endowment, and hurt employee morale.
The state-owned Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, as well as nearly all of Penn State’s Big Ten peer institutions, are subject to an open records law.
The best policies on paper don’t work if campus culture is unhealthy
Culture change at large institutions is difficult, DePasquale said, especially when various groups such as administrators, faculty, staff, and students are seemingly held to different standards. People need to be held accountable, regardless of their position or status, he said.
“It’s not so much what is on paper,” DePasquale said. “I think a lot of these schools have very good things on paper. It’s about making sure that that is followed through universitywide, and that the administration can’t be putting things down just because it’s good for your public perception. But they’ve got to buy into it as well.”
Penn State commissioned multiple surveys in the past decade to gauge employee and student perceptions about university values and culture. The 2017 version of the survey found that less than half of faculty and staff believe that Penn State does not retaliate against people who report wrongdoing.
The 2022 version of the survey found that nearly 40% of Penn State employees believe that people who violate university policies get rewarded. The latest survey again found that less than half of faculty and staff believe that Penn State does not retaliate against people who report misconduct. The results of the latest survey were released after Spotlight PA and the Centre Daily Times published their investigation.
When a university fails to address Title IX cases, students are deprived of educational opportunities and they often drop out, which has long-term consequences, Dyller said.
“The Title IX Office, and officers, need to have a culture of enforcing Title IX and protecting victims,” he said. “And that does not mean being unfair or being one-sided. But it does mean understanding the law, understanding their obligations, and being sensitive to them.”
Read the full story online here.
—Wyatt Massey, Penn State investigative reporter