Penn State's stained reputation can be cleansed only by sunshine



Now that Joe Paterno's statue has been hauled away and dozens of his gridiron victories erased from the books, crippling NCAA fines imposed and football's Nittany Lions reduced to housecats, it's tempting to close the book on Penn State and declare "problem solved."

We shouldn't.

In the wake of Louis Freeh’s damning postmortem on Penn State’s non-response to the presence of a known pedophile on campus, seeing the university buried under sanctions was emotionally cathartic. But each response so far has merely been punitive -- and often punitive of the wrong people, including wholly blameless football recruits. None of them is curative.

There is only one remedy that penalizes no innocent bystanders -- that, to the contrary, benefits them -- and that imposes lasting consequences that actually will make Penn State a better place: Hyper-transparency.

I'm not just talking about repealing the bizarre exemption in Pennsylvania's open-records law that has let Penn State and other “state related” colleges operate in total darkness. Oh no, that's something that should've been the law decades ago.

Merely making Penn State adhere to the Right-to-Know Law is like making the penalty for speeding that, from now on, you have to drive the speed limit.

I'm talking about the kind of complete transparency to which all government agencies should aspire (but none do).

The Penn State Hypertransparency Act of 2012 should be one page long, stripped down to a half-dozen minimal exemptions protecting medical information, grades, attorney-client communications and very little else. Everything else -- everything -- is to be made public. Its requirements should apply to everyone, including trustees. And it should carry real penalties, including mandatory removal from employment for violators.

When the president meets with senior staff, there's a camera in the room streaming it online. If the athletic director writes a memo, up it goes on a public website. When the provost sends an email, a copy gets archived in an electronic "reading room."

Trustee meetings are let-it-all-hang-out meetings – because there’ll be no more off-the-record dinner conversations and email exchanges where the real decisions get made.

If meetings are closed for “executive sessions,” those sessions are taped and played for an independent auditor. If the auditor discovers that the discussion has strayed from the few legally confidential topics, everyone who took part in the conversation loses his job. Anyone caught destroying records or otherwise willfully undermining transparency goes to jail.

This goes for dealings with outside actors -- and NCAA, this means you -- as well. If the NCAA -- which has so little regard for the public that it conspires with universities to create off-the-books communication channels for no other purpose than evading state open-records laws -- doesn't want to do business with a hyper-transparent Penn State, then let its governing board own up to that. Publicly.

Critics insist that colleges must operate in secrecy because “good people” won’t work in an environment where their faults are publicly aired. In case you hadn’t noticed, it’s a buyer’s market for Ph.Ds. If a “good” administrator sniffs at a $400,000-a-year job because his pride might get hurt, relax. There’ll be a busload of candidates right behind him.

“Good” candidates – truly good ones – will flock to work in a hyper-transparent institution. Hasn’t everyone in a large hierarchical organization found himself wishing he understood the reasoning behind his marching orders? Hasn’t everyone wished he could sit in the room and see for himself if upper management really made decisions by randomly flinging darts at the wall?

Penn State is the laboratory test case for what you get when you exempt colleges from the open-records laws that govern every other state agency. You get arrogant, unaccountable government. You get a toxic culture in which success is defined as “not getting caught.”

If experience teaches us anything -- and not just at Penn State, but at institutions like the University of Virginia, where a backroom deal among a handful of power-drunk trustees temporarily ousted a well-liked and capable president -- it's that unwise decisions are always made behind closed doors.

With the narrow exception of national security, every excuse made by government agencies for doing business in secret always comes down to this: We don't trust the citizens not to overreact if they know what we're considering.

Public policy should not be built around contempt for the public. If we have a citizenry that cannot maturely understand how decisions are made, it's because they've never been invited inside to learn.

In a hyper-transparent institution, the central governing principle is this one: Everything you are doing must pass the test of public legitimacy. If you are doing something as a public employee that you realize cannot withstand public scrutiny, then you stop doing it.

I'm not interested in seeing whether Penn State can live without football. I'm interested in seeing whether it can live without deception.

If Justice Brandeis was right that sunlight is the best of disinfectants, there's a school up in Happy Valley that needs a 40-gallon industrial drum of it.

Tagged: FOI