In response to the NCAA penalties levied against Penn State last week, the family of Joe Paterno issued a statement criticizing the NCAA for its reliance upon the Freeh Report: “To claim that (Joe Paterno) knowingly, intentionally protected a pedophile is false.”
Former Penn State president Graham Spanier, in a letter to the board of trustees, also criticized the report, claiming that he had no direct knowledge that sexual abuse of children was taking place on the campus.
Both Spanier and the Paterno family seem to think that responsibility requires knowledge, and that usually is the case when one is trying to determine individual responsibility for an action. But it is not the case for leaders of organizations. The Freeh Report addressed individual responsibility, but it focused primarily on institutional control. It asked why two janitors who witnessed abuse in 1998 were afraid to report it and why the university did not follow up appropriately in 2001 when Mike McQueary did report it.
In any organization, leaders bear responsibility not only for what they do but for what they allow others under their authority to do. That’s partly because leaders ought to know what is taking place under their watch, but it’s also because of the ways authority influences behavior.
In 1961, Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted a series of experiments designed to determine whether ordinary people would obey an authority figure even if they were told to do something they knew to be wrong. This was a significant question because the Eichmann trial was taking place in Jerusalem that year. Adolf Eichmann, a Nazi officer in charge of transporting Jews to killing centers throughout Europe, defended his actions by saying he was just following orders. Milgram wanted to determine whether such a defense was plausible. If an ordinary citizen was placed in Eichmann’s situation, would he or she do the same thing?
Milgram solicited volunteers for an experiment he claimed was designed to test the effects of electrical shocks on memory. He divided participants into two groups — the “teachers” and the “learners.” The learners were charged with memorizing word pairs. The teachers were directed to say one of the words and ask the learner to recall the matching word. If the learner did not recall the right word, he or she would be given an electrical shock. The voltage was increased for each wrong answer. The volunteers did not realize that the learners were actually actors pretending to receive shocks. The experiment was intended not to test memory but to determine whether people would do something they knew to be wrong just because they were told by an authority figure to do so.
The results astounded Milgram. In his first set of experiments, 65 percent of the volunteers delivered shocks up to the maximum level, even after the learners pleaded with them to stop.
The Milgram experiments revealed that people in positions of authority wield an extraordinary amount of influence over those they supervise. That influence extends not only to people’s actions but to how they perceive the rightness or wrongness of their actions. The subjects knew that causing pain to others was wrong, but because they were told by the researcher to continue, they persuaded themselves that they were not responsible.
Because the leaders of institutions create a culture within which some behaviors are encouraged, others tolerated, and yet others are condemned, they bear responsibility not just for what they know but for what other people within that culture do. At Penn State, the question is not simply whether the leaders knew for a fact that Sandusky was sexually abusing children. The significant question is why they failed to create a culture in which employees would be expected to put the safety of children before everything else.
The Freeh Report contends that the leaders at Penn State not only concealed information about allegations of sexual abuse, they also “provided Sandusky with the very currency that enabled him to attract his victims.”
Part of this currency was a moral economy in which those in authority neglected to empower those beneath them to act as responsible moral agents. Whether they were fully aware of the cost of their neglect is beside the point.
The Ethical Life is a series of reflections on the ways ethical thinking influences our actions, emotions and relationships. Richard Kyte is the director of the D.B. Reinhart Institute for Ethics in Leadership at Viterbo University.