Ethics Audit of Penn State Reveals Cultural Problems

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Penn State

September 22, 2014; Penn State Daily Collegian

In its continuing effort to undo the damage of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, Penn State recently recruited the Ethics Resource Center to conduct a survey of Penn State’s values and culture. The report, released last week, involved over 14,000 members of the Penn State community—students, faculty, administrators—and revealed a culture that has serious problems.

As summarized by Erin McCarthy for the Daily Collegian, Penn State’s campus newspaper, 58 percent of the survey respondents said that they had seen behavior they considered an abrogation of university rules or even violated the law. However, it doesn’t appear that the culture of Penn State makes reporting wrongdoing easy or welcome. According to the report, survey respondents reported “distrust of current processes, experiences with retaliation and unfamiliarity with available resources.” Some Penn State staff made it clear that reporting wrongdoing would simply engender retaliation and reported in the survey that they had observed intimidation and bullying in the workplace.

Established in 1922, the Ethics Resource Center promotes high ethical standards, conducts biennial ethics surveys, and occasionally does contracted surveys such as this one for Penn State. Given the attention that Penn State has received for its role in abetting Sandusky’s sexual abuse depredations, the report merits public discussion, especially in light of former Senator George Mitchell’s glowing report on Penn State’s progress addressing the recommendations outlined by former FBI director Louis Freeh, particularly since the ERC report provides insights into the institutional Penn State culture.

Sadly, although 40 percent of staff and 31 percent of faculty participated in the survey, only 11 percent of graduate students and seven percent of undergraduate students did. If there had been a higher level of student response, it is possible that the results of the survey might have been different.


The finding shocking to us is that of the survey participants who said that they had witnessed misconduct, only 26 percent reported the misconduct to university authorities. Eighteen percent of staffers who witnessed and reported misconduct said that they experienced retaliation in response. The most frequently observed misconduct according to staff respondents was “abusive or intimidating behavior that creates a hostile environment.”

The challenge is whether the university will actually take affirmative steps to radically alter the university’s ethical culture. Given that the Mitchell report suggested that Penn State is well along the way toward rectifying its pre- and post-Sandusky problems, are people likely to look at the ERC report as having identified and addressed problems in the university’s past that have already been dealt with in the Mitchell report?

An ostrich-like head-in-the-sand approach to a report that takes on Penn State’s institutional culture is not going to work. But we wonder: Would most nonprofits we know be willing to subject themselves to an ethics audit along the lines of what ERC aimed to do at Penn State? In how many of our nonprofits would surveys turn up evidence of staff seeing wrongdoing but nor reporting it for fear of retaliation, abusive bullying by executive staff toward subordinates, and worse?—Rick Cohen

Full disclosure: One of ERC’s board members is former Massachusetts Attorney General Scott Harshbarger. Harshbarger is also Nonprofit Quarterly’s corporation counsel.

  • Tish Mogan

    The Ethics Resource Center is an excellent source of guidance and information. As a former MS in Nonporfit Management Business Ethics instructor, we focused on the variety of ways to promote a “culture” of ethics within organizations. As Jim Collin’s research implies, the stronger the culture of ethics within a company (or nonprofit organization) the more profitable the company is. For nonprofits, the more they can achieve mission and impact (see for research work).

    I highlly recommend Linda Trevino’s and Karen Nelson’s text titled Managing Business Ethics, Stratight Talk about Doing it Right. The book has s strong focus on developing ethical cultures. One chapter has a set of selected ethical questions for the formal and informal components of a company/nonprofit organization. I used this as an assignment with students to do for their organizations and it provides a revealing and good start to strengthen “how we do things” with a strong focous on ethics.