One Thousand Words of Sympathy for the Administrator

I haven’t been following the Penn State scandal story.

I have no connection to the school and know absolutely nothing about college football. I don’t contribute or volunteer for any organizations that are focused on eliminating child molestation, even though it’s a very worthy cause.

You’d have to live under a rock to not have heard some of the facts about the story, though. I recognize the names of the people involved and know the general story even without paying attention.

Then last night, as I was watching the Australian Open on ESPN 2, I couldn’t help but notice the ticker that continually scrolled at the bottom screen announcing that former Penn State coach Joe Paterno was in the hospital and gathering his loved ones to him for a “final goodbye.”

Then this morning I heard that he had died.

Regardless of his actions, and I’m not judging them, one way or the other because I don’t know the details, it’s sad that any legacy the man had created was so badly damaged at the end of his life.

Again, I’m not making a judgment. Whether he handled the situation correctly or not, it’s still sad.

But my first thought, both when I saw the news last night and this morning, was sympathy for the current President of Penn State.

My exact quote last night was, “If Paterno dies, that school is going to vilify that poor guy serving as president.”

Is pity for a school administrator a strange reaction?

It makes more sense if you know that four years ago I was thrust into a similar situation, on a much smaller and less tragic scale.

I had worked with my predecessor for almost seven years when he left the position suddenly and under a cloud of confusion and misinformation. Nothing at all criminal or as awful as sexual misconduct with a minor, but it still created quite a stir in our little community. There were a lot of hard feelings and unhappy people as a result.

The first several months of my tenure, very long and tiring months, were spent managing the situation and trying to control the fallout so that the organization could continue on.

The experience had such an effect on me that I wrote my Master’s thesis on emergency leadership transition. The combination of personal experience and months of research has made the topic a particular interest for mine.

So it wasn’t really all that strange that my first concern was for the president who is facing those same challenges albeit with higher stakes and a bigger constituency.

I didn’t know anything about the man but today I did a little research, curious whether anything on his resume had prepared him for the circumstances he has been dealing with.
Rodney Erickson is an academic, a professor of geography, and served as the University’s Executive Vice President and Provost.

I don’t know a lot about campus life, so I’m not exactly sure what I provost does. I’m assuming my college had one, but I don’t know who he or she was. Everything I read said that Erickson was a behind the scenes guy, comfortable and capable at running the school’s daily operations. Steady and unassuming, not someone to challenge authority or make waves.

I can understand the appeal of such a leader to the school’s board of trustees. Words like responsible, reasonable and consistent are boring in an online dating profile, but comforting to the people who are held accountable for an institution facing a scandal.

Although the board appears convinced in Erickson’s abilities to steer the Penn State ship, he doesn’t seem to be inspiring that confidence in alumni and students.

Erickson recently conducted a little Rainbow Tour (if you’ll forgive the musical theater reference) of meetings with alumni. Based on the articles, the goal was to listen to their concerns and assure alumni that the school was moving forward, past the recent disgrace.

I don’t think it worked. The alumni expressed anger with the trustees and the lack of transparency surrounding Joe Paterno’s dismissal.

There was even concern for how Erickson was selected as president, even though he was the University’s second in command.

That charge also hit close to home for, while I didn’t hear anyone in the community questioning why I was made Executive Director without a proper search or the position being opened up for applications, I have often wondered if that was a good decision for the organization.

I’m not saying that out of humility, real or faux, or lack of self-confidence, although I’ll admit to having days when I wonder if I’m the right person for the job. But the board, both mine and the one at Penn State, shouldn’t select a new leader because it is easy.

Researching my thesis, I learned how important interim leadership is in a sudden transition.

I’m talking about a real interim leader, not one in title only. I was called the interim Executive Director for six month and Erickson was labeled interim for less than one week.

A true interim leader takes on the role temporarily, with no expectation of staying in the position. This allows him or her to assess the organization and the ability to make changes without worrying that choices they make will affect the board’s decision whether or not to hire them on a permanent basis.

An interim leader who wishes to become a long-term leader will be cautious and not to step on toes. Sometimes an organization needs more radical action.

I don’t know Rodney Erickson. I don’t know his strengths or weaknesses, his leadership style or vision for Penn State. I don’t know if he’s the right leader for the school or not.

Can he guide the trustees, alumni, students and public? Can he inspire their confidence?

I don’t know. But Joe Paterno’s death is yet another barrier to his success and although he’s far from the biggest victim in the scandal, I empathize with his situation.

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