Since the news about Jerry Sandusky broke last fall, the most challenging chapter in Penn States history has unfolded in the glare of the national spotlight. Those of us in leadership roles at Penn State have faced questions for which there is no playbook. I have spent many nights and many more with our leadership team considering the actions we must take to ensure that this university endures as an institution of which we can all be proud and one that learns from the past to be a brighter light for the future.
I knew when I accepted the position of president in November and the board of trustees strongly agreed that, for Penn State to move forward, we would need to uncover and expose the full scope of the universitys knowledge of Sanduskys actions. We could not wait for courts to bring evidence to light. So, knowing that we would need to accept accountability for whatever was discovered, the board asked former FBI director Louis Freeh to lead an independent investigation.
The Freeh report revealed that those in positions of authority had failed to protect children. The board of trustees and my administration have accepted responsibility for this breakdown of leadership.
Since the report was published, accepting responsibility has come to take on an additional meaning. Last week the NCAA imposed unprecedented penalties on the university. These include a $60 million fine, the loss of football scholarships, a ban on postseason play and the forfeiture of all wins between 1998 and 2011.
Many have questioned how I could agree to such sanctions. Let me be clear that I did not suggest this punishment, and I do not take its repercussions lightly. But I believe that the alternative a multiyear ban on football would have been far more detrimental to the healing process of our students and alumni.
With this penalty, it is true that all of us in some way now shoulder the burden for the wrongdoings of others. Students, faculty, staff and alumni who had no involvement, or even knowledge of who Jerry Sandusky was, now share in the responsibility of leaders who failed. To many, it is simply unfair.
I think, however, that acceptance of this responsibility will be essential to our ability to lay a new foundation and integral to the long-term character of our institution. In the face of this adversity, I am proud of the many students, faculty and alumni who have banded together with grace, humility and determination.
In a larger sense, the past years events have brought into focus the pain experienced by victims as well as the insidious crime of child sexual abuse. We owe it to them, and it is our social responsibility, to make the prevention of child sexual abuse a part of our universitys mission of teaching, research and service.
We have already begun to mobilize our university community to support and work with organizations that prevent and detect child abuse and help victims recover. We have established the Center for the Protection of Children at the Penn State Hershey Childrens Hospital, and national experts are scheduled to gather on our campus in October for a two-day conference about the many facets of child sexual abuse. We have partnered with the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape and the National Sexual Violence Resource Center to expand public awareness, provide training for our employees and advise us on future initiatives.
Some will still find it hard to imagine a new chapter in Penn States history, to see beyond a football program without postseason play or the story of a school that fell from a pedestal. I urge the skeptics to look harder and see what I see today: an institution that will emerge stronger than ever before, one that will be made great not because of the reputations of a few but because of the resolve, compassion and talents of many.
From the headlines alone, it would be forgivable though wrong to think that Penn State is little more than an ordinary university with a tradition of athletic success. More than 150 years of tremendous accomplishments in teaching, research and service suggest otherwise. Penn State graduates are among the most successful leaders in science, engineering, medicine, public policy, the arts and business. Many were the first in their families to go to college. They came and still come from near and far and they continue to succeed.
So as I look ahead, I see a university that ultimately prevails. I see a community that has learned from this experience in the most painful and personal of ways a story that is more than just our story but that of humanity in all its fallibility.
Irrevocably changed by the lessons of the past, the community joins together to become a passionate voice for the victims of child sexual abuse and for the courage in each of us to stand up to protect societys most vulnerable.
Rodney Erickson is president of Penn State. He wrote this for The Washington Post.