The Cost of a “Judgment Call”

Published: March 27, 2017

By Jim Lichtman
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In 2005, I was invited to speak on ethics at a prominent university. I was escorted to a site on campus where the room was packed with students, teachers and administrators. I take my place at a table down in front near the podium for a luncheon that preceded my talk.


An official in the room leans over and tells me, “You’re doin’ great so far, Jim. You’re out-drawing our last speaker.”

“Who was that?” I asked.

“Dick Thornburgh,” the former Attorney General for President Ronald Reagan.

During the lunch, an affable, grey-haired man arrives late and sits down next to me at the table. I introduce myself and he begins telling me that he’s looking forward to my talk. He explains how honor and integrity are vital to the university.

Just before I’m due to speak, I ask him, “I’m sorry, but I don’t know your name.”

“Graham Spanier,” he says. “I’m the president of Penn State.”

This was 2005 — three years after assistant coach Mike McQueray reported an alleged sexual assault on a young boy by football coach Jerry Sandusky.

Did Spanier know? Although he was fired by the University’s Board along with Coach Joe Paterno, we may never know the full story.

However, according to Yahoo News (Mar. 24), “Graham B. Spanier… was found guilty on Friday of one misdemeanor count of endangering the welfare of children, not guilty on another count of a similar charge, and not guilty on one count of criminal conspiracy for his role in the Jerry Sandusky sex-abuse scandal.”

For three years, the Sandusky scandal was a conspiracy of silence. Such was the culture surrounding Penn State. For me, it’s also an example of a clear difference between appearance and reality.

In my time spent at the university, there was not a whisper of knowledge or suspicion – from students, administrators or teachers.  So, those who knew kept the secret – a secret that has since destroyed the reputation of a major university not to mention the standing of a respected football coach who, to his credit, did many good things for his student-athletes. Unfortunately, it only takes one act to erase those good works in the minds of many.

It’s a sad fact that, even the most well-intended of us overestimate the cost of doing the right thing and underestimate the cost of failing to do so.

From an ethical perspective, the Penn State scandal clearly demonstrates that there was a major breakdown in responsibility and integrity by many senior administration officials. It appears that several were reluctant to act for fear of damaging the reputation of a high profile university, and possibly losing millions from donors. However, in failing to act correctly, they further damaged that reputation.

So, what can we learn from the Penn State scandal?

To begin with, Everyone thinks it can’t happen to them until it does.

Never think, for a moment, that you can get by on your sterling reputation alone. Head Coach Joe Paterno and officials at Penn State were guilty of moral hubris.

Second: No one is above the rules.

An ethical person chooses to do more than the law requires and less than the law allows.

Although McQueary and Paterno both followed the legal rules by reporting the incident up the university chain, they should have gone directly to the police with what they knew. How many other young boys might have been spared abuse had they done so?

 Third – Everyone makes mistakes.

Admit them as soon as possible, because if you don’t someone else will, eventually. Take corrective actions for all stakeholders involved; and work, to the best of your ability, to put measures in place to insure that those mistakes are not repeated.

Fourth – Appoint an ethical ombudsman, someone students, administrators and teachers can trust and contact regarding any issue that arises.

After his appointment, interim president Rodney Erickson announced that he was appointing such an office. He said that the scandal was “a tragedy for many lives and it will take all of us some time to come to grips with the full magnitude of the damage that has been done.”

Throughout his long career, Joe Paterno was known as a man of total integrity. However, integrity requires us to treat our beliefs about right and wrong as ground rules of behavior and decision making. Unfortunately, Joe forgot those ground rules and, perhaps out of loyalty to the Penn State, did not notify the police as he should.

So, how could a man who has demonstrated integrity for most of his life make such a big mistake?

“There is a danger,” ethicist Michael Josephson writes, “that conscientious people who want to do their jobs well will cease to reflect on the moral justifications for the methods they use to achieve the results they seek. There is a tendency to compartmentalize ethics into private and occupational domains so as to justify fundamentally decent people doing things in their jobs that they know to be wrong in other contexts.”

And now, we read about the verdict of the man who, not only more than likely knew of the abuse, but was the head of the university, Graham Spanier. The “smoking gun” in Spanier’s case came from an e-mail.

“It was decided that they would approach Sandusky directly,” The New York Times reported (Nov. 1, 2012), “rather than going to outside authorities. Spanier deemed this a ‘humane and a reasonable way to proceed,’ with one caveat: ‘The only downside for us is if the message isn’t “heard” and acted upon, and we then become vulnerable for not having reported it,’ Spanier wrote.”

“Mr. Spanier’s lawyers called no witnesses in his defense,” The Times wrote of the verdict last Friday, “but, according to news media reports, told the jury that prosecutors had failed to provide evidence that he knew Mr. Sandusky was accused of sexual abuse. Instead, they said, he made a ‘judgment call’ and took action about what he knew.”

Attorneys for Spanier said they will appeal the decision.


  1. This sad story once again illustrates the long-known message, (we learn OVER AND OVER) which cost Richard Nixon the presidency. Simply put: The Cover Up, no matter how painful is always WORSE than instant confession and honesty.

    The Penn State administration was absorbed with their “reputation” and football had been the Holy Grail for the once-bottom-tier school. This one e-mail exchange uncovered by former FBI director Freeh, whose private corporation made 8.2 million dollars investigating this matter is the Gun that the smoke led to: “In an exchange of e-mail messages from February 26 to February 28, 2001, President Spanier allegedly acknowledges Penn State could be “vulnerable” for not reporting the incident, according to two sources with knowledge of the case. “The only downside for us is if the message (to Sandusky) isn’t ‘heard’ and acted upon, and we then become vulnerable for not having reported it,” Spanier purportedly writes.

    For all of us the come clean up front is obvious. Less apparent to everyone, including today’s mall shooters is that your computer holds damning evidence in your e-mails that you long ago casually typed and pressed “SEND.”

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