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 — 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 the main 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.
Oversight of Title IX cases is limited, and often driven by survivors
A 2020 report by the U.S. Department of Education found that Penn State failed to ensure reliable and impartial investigations of sexual harassment and failed to provide reasonable time frames for the complaint process. The department found that in the 2016-17 academic year Penn State did not maintain the records necessary to show whether the university was in compliance with Title IX, the federal law banning discrimination on the basis of sex.
People who believe a school has mishandled their Title IX case have limited options, Dyller said.
The system requires people to self-advocate through actions such as following up with their institution’s Title IX office if nothing is happening with their case, Dyller said.
They can file a report with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, and they can hire a lawyer. But these choices require survivors to speak up on top of processing the trauma of their situation, taking classes, and potentially fearing retaliation, he said.
“It’s an added burden,” Dyller said. “And, ideally, they shouldn’t have to do that. Practically, they frequently do. I don’t have a great solution for that, except slowly, steadily holding colleges, universities, and other schools accountable.”
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.”
Issues flagged in the 2017 auditor general’s report remain
In his 2017 audit of the university, DePasquale called for Penn State trustees and employees to be subject to the state’s Public Official and Employee Ethics Act, which requires the reporting of financial interests to an independent commission that oversees ethics questions.
Penn State disagreed with the recommendation, arguing the university is not a state agency and that university policies and trustee bylaws are sufficient.
The ethics act covers issues that are not criminal but have public interest, such as the misuse of taxpayer dollars, DePasquale said during the panel discussion. Groups or individuals found in violation of the act by the commission could face financial penalties.
DePasquale’s report from 2017 also highlighted the rising tuition costs at Penn State. The report found that Penn State’s tuition was growing faster than the consumer price index and the university was accepting nonresident students at higher rates than in-state students, who typically pay a lower amount to attend.
Affordability remained a top issue during this year’s legislative budget process, as Penn State, Pitt, and Temple are among the most expensive universities for in-state tuition and fees in the nation, according to U.S. News & World Report.
“There is a broader concern about pricing middle class and working class families in Pennsylvania out of the ability of going to these universities,” DePasquale said.
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