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Penn State

5 takeaways from our ‘Missed Conduct’ investigation on Penn State’s post-Sandusky reforms

by Wyatt Massey of Spotlight PA State College |

An illustration of the Nittany Lion sleeping on top of Old Main.
Daniel Fishel / For Spotlight PA

This story was produced by the State College regional bureau of Spotlight PA, an independent, nonpartisan newsroom dedicated to investigative and public-service journalism for Pennsylvania. Sign up for our regional newsletter, Talk of the Town.

STATE COLLEGE — For the past year, Spotlight PA and the Centre Daily Times investigated 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 found deep-rooted flaws — distrust is rampant and many fear retaliation if they speak up. 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 a statement in response to the investigation, Penn State said it examines its practices and makes necessary changes.

Here are some key findings from the investigation:

Federal and state inquiries have found failures in the university’s systems for years.

In 2016, the U.S. Department of Education leveled a then-record $2.4 million fine for Penn State’s “longstanding failure to comply with federal requirements on campus safety and substance abuse.”

In 2017, a report by the Pennsylvania Department of the Auditor General found, among other things, that Penn State hosted potentially dozens of youth camps without conducting the necessary background checks on all employees. At the time, Penn State characterized the claim as “assumed extrapolation” and “not based in fact.” In a recent statement, the university said it “closely reviewed its protocols and made appropriate changes.”

A Department of Education report from 2020 concluded that problems identified during the Sandusky scandal remain at Penn State, noting that there are “serious inadequacies” in how the university handles claims of sexual harassment.

The university lacks a unified way to track all cases of reported misconduct.

Penn State operates with a largely decentralized series of compliance offices overseeing various subjects and geographic areas. These units do not all follow a standardized investigative protocol.

The university does not have a centralized way to track all cases of reported misconduct, which can result in reports being overlooked when reassigned to different offices.

This setup results in multiple offices applying policies to more than 123,000 students and employees on two dozen campuses across the state with a limited awareness of existing problems.

President Neeli Bendapudi included creating such a standardized system in her goals for the university, though there is not a clear timeline for implementation.

Penn State’s former chief ethics officer was repeatedly accused of misconduct.

The former head of the university’s central ethics office was accused of misconduct through official channels at least three times in less than two years. Complaints submitted through Penn State’s hotline reporting system alleged Kenya Mann Faulkner ridiculed staff in public, mocked their physical appearances, and retaliated against those who raised concerns about her.

Penn State human resources investigated the ethics office, and the university twice brought in an outside law firm. People disappointed in the university’s response took their concerns to then-President Eric Barron and leading trustees.

After learning of one report, Faulkner wrote in an email to Penn State officials, which was obtained by the newsrooms, that she was the target of harassment. She also claimed that, at the direction of a university leader, she did not investigate multiple misconduct reports against other top Penn State administrators.

Faulkner left the university in early 2021. A former ethics office employee named her in a 2022 lawsuit against the university alleging retaliation. The lawsuit was settled out of court in January.

Surveys noted widespread distrust in Penn State’s misconduct reporting system.

In 2013 and 2017, Penn State commissioned surveys of employees’ and students’ feelings about its campus culture and values.

The 2013 survey found that 75% of participants who observed misconduct did not report it, and only 53% of respondents who did report misconduct said they were satisfied or very satisfied with the university’s response.

The 2017 survey showed some improvements in people’s awareness of how to report misconduct and their willingness to flag it, compared to 2013. Yet, the percentage of participants who said they were satisfied or very satisfied with the university’s response to reported misconduct dropped to 42%.

The survey also found that 44% of faculty and 42% of staff believe Penn State does not retaliate against people who report wrongdoing, an increase from 35% and 30% in 2013.

Penn State has yet to release the results of the 2022 version of the culture survey.

Possible windows into whether Penn State is living up to its promises are opaque.

Penn State has little legal obligation to grant public insight into its accountability practices, due to a special exemption in Pennsylvania’s open records law.

Information on the effectiveness of its central ethics office is delivered to university trustees behind closed doors. The board has been criticized for potentially misusing Pennsylvania’s conference provision in order to meet in secret for more than a decade. Penn State told the newsrooms it complies with the law.

The university’s former athletics integrity officer, an oversight position created following the Sandusky scandal, said in 2022 that he wished his position was structured to be more transparent.

In the past decade, multiple state lawmakers from both major parties have supported ending the open-records exclusion for state-related universities — but several pieces of legislation have failed to advance.

Read the full “Missed Conduct” investigation at spotlightpa.org/psureforms.

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