That was the pivotal question that US Senator Howard Baker asked during the congressional hearings into President Richard Nixon's role in the cover-up that eventually forced him to resign.
That also is a question that trustees of Ohio State University may wish to ask as they consider the fate of their president Gordon Gee. His administration forced Jim Tressel, the head football coach, to resign because he lied to the administration and the NCAA about not knowing that his players had sold merchandise for tattoos. Tressel's exit, however, does not end the scandal since it now appears that Gee and the athletic director Gene Smith should have been more vigilant in monitoring the football program.
It was only after George Dohrmann, a reporter for Sports Illustrated, called a university official and told him about what he â€" not their internal investigators â€" had found did the scope of the mess become clear. It was not simply five players trading merchandise for tattoos. It was a multi-year legacy of rule breaking for football players under Tressel's care and guidance that was now in the news. Sports Illustrated discovered that trading "memorabilia for tattoos stretched back to 2002... and involved at least 28 players." Some players had even traded merchandise for marijuana.
A savvy president would have begun asking serious questions of his athletic department last December when the initial tattoo affair came to light. Yet Gee went along with the plan to allow the players who broke the rules to play in the Sugar Bowl. As late as March of this year, Gordon Gee laughed off the notion that the school would ever get rid of Tressel. What kind of signal does that send? If I am the athletic director, or another coach at Ohio State, it means I keep my mouth shut.
The lesson for senior leaders who want to discover the truth about a potential scandal is to investigate thoroughly and follow thorough on what you learn. Specifically, consider asking these three questions
Who knew what and when? Plain and simple. Discover who knew what was going on and when did they know it. What actions did they take upon discovery? People will make mistakes; it is what they do to correct (or ignore) them that often matters more.
Who benefited from this situation? Look at what occurred. Who benefited from the cover-up and how did they benefit? Did individuals receive money or get promoted? Also you need to ask what benefits did the company receive? And yes, truthful answers may prove to be embarrassing. Asking these questions gets to the root of the problem.
Who is responsible? The immediate perpetrators are often easy to identify. They are equivalent of corner drug dealers. You need to find their bosses, the ones who hired them. Sometimes the cover-up will reach to the very top of the organization.
The issue for Ohio State is integrity and it would seem that its administration has crossed the line and betrayed its higher mission â€" education and research. While critics (and alumni of Michigan of which I am one) like to portray OSU as a football factory, it is not.
It is an institution of higher learning. It owes its students a good return on their investment and it owes its faculty a commitment to ethics and truth. Penalties on students who plagiarize or researchers who fudge data are severe, including dismissal. The administration should hold itself no less accountable.
The question before OSU's trustees is what will it do next. When a leader can no longer do the job he was hired to do, he must go. Just ask Jim Tressel.