How Penn State can recover from scandal

Joe Paterno receives a plaque from Penn State President Graham Spanier to celebrate his 409th career win after the game against the Illinois Fighting Illini on October 29, 2011 at Beaver Stadium in State College, Pennsylvania.
Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

COMMENTARY So where does Penn State go from here? Well, the first concern should not be football. That mindset is what got the school into this sex-abuse scandal in the first place. For decades, under the guidance of Joe Paterno, the football team prided itself on doing the right thing the right way, even when it was hard. The NCAA never sanctioned the program, and it boasted high graduation rates for its players.

Complete coverage: The Penn State Scandal

But as we know now, that was not the whole truth. The football program, along with the athletic department and into the higher levels of administration, allowed an alleged pedophile, an assistant coach, to roam the campus for  years after the university received a report alleging the man sexually molested a child in the campus athletic facility.

So now Penn State -- which has fired Paterno and the university president -- must not only clean house; it must rebuild and that starts with new leadership. Given that the board of trustees could even be held accountable in this scandal, the university needs to find a new president as soon as possible. With a scandal of this magnitude, it may be wise to hire from the outside. Such a leader must then immediately turn to the men and women on the inside to help him or her lead the university. Whoever that new president is, he or she should do the following:

Apologize to the community
The university seems to have been complicit in horrific actions. While there may be financial settlements to the victims, that won't take away the need for an apology. If you want a lesson in how that's done, look to Diarmuid Martin, an Irish archbishop, who much to the consternation of the Catholic hierarchy, has made it his mission to atone for the pedophile crimes of his fellow Irish priests. Archbishop Martin has met with, apologized to, and acknowledged publicly the shame that the church inflicted on the innocents.

Understand your primary responsibility
The mission of Penn State University is to educate its students. Focus on academics first and foremost. To my knowledge the school is doing a fine job in that regard. Good, but do not take it for granted. Remind everyone on the faculty and in the administration that education comes first.

Embrace what's good in the institution
However awful it may seem now, there is far more right with Penn State than there is wrong. Success on the gridiron did enable the university to raise a lot of money. Over the many decades of Paterno's tenure, those funds were used to transform a sleepy agricultural school into a premier research university. This transformation occurred through a combination of academic excellence, research integrity, and hard work. Those values must be preserved.

Connect with the university community
Spend time with students. Explain to them what has happened and why it happened. Many will still be thinking that Paterno was jobbed and deserved to stay. Use this as a teaching moment to remind them that integrity is not something you talk about; it's what you put into action. Advise the faculty of their responsibility to teach and to set the right example. The same applies to the administration. Also look for support and guidance from the alumni; they too are keystakeholders.

This is just the beginning. The athletic department, chiefly football, will need to be rebuilt. But that's a secondary concern. Making it a priority sends a message that we still have not learned from the past and that football is still king on campus.

Right now, it's easy to throw stones at Penn State. That would be the wrong thing to do. The right thing for leaders to do is to look at what happened there and ask: could it happen here? Do you have people in positions of authority who would do the right thing and intervene immediately, or do you have a culture of complicity that would encourage people to look the other way?

If it happened at Penn State, it could happen anywhere. And that thought ought to give every senior leader pause to consider: What would I do differently?