It is a lurid tale.
A prestigious university, and its incredibly storied football program that won several national championships, is caught up in a sexual-abuse scandal. Even worse, an iconic football figure might have been unduly protected to the detriment of the victims.
Despite initial hopes that the situation would resolve itself quickly and quietly — sparing the university from excoriating criticism — the opposite occurred. What began as a trickle of articles snowballed into hard-hitting exposes published by world-renowned media outlets. The floodgates, flung wide open, unleashed a torrent of new stories as previously undisclosed information continued to surface.
Presiding during such a scandal, regardless of culpability, would surely make any university president beleaguered, tarnishing his reputation. So the last place on Earth to expect that president to show up would be the only other university with a bigger sex scandal on its hands, right?
Wrong. Welcome to Penn State.
In competing for the Most Moronic Move Of The Decade award, that’s exactly what Penn State’s Board of Trustees did by hiring Florida State’s Eric Barron as its new president.
It was on Barron’s watch that the controversy currently engulfing Florida State began. In December 2012, an FSU student claimed that she was raped, identifying freshman quarterback sensation Jameis Winston as the perpetrator.
In what had to be one of the worst investigations in history, the Tallahassee police dropped the ball in every way. The lead detective, Scott Angulo, had previously worked for the Seminole Boosters — a nonprofit organization with $150 million in assets that not only helps fund FSU athletics but partially pays the salaries of the football coaching staff and, incredibly, roughly a quarter of Barron’s $602,000 salary. Disturbingly, Angulo waited weeks before interviewing Winston, and it took him two months to file his initial report. Evidence was lost, DNA was never obtained, security video from a bar was never reviewed, witnesses were not aggressively tracked down, and the case was closed without the victim even being notified.
How bad were the police? Prosecutor William Meggs said it best: "They just missed all the basic fundamental stuff that you are supposed to do."
The bumbling police investigation forced Meggs to close the case for lack of evidence. No charges were filed.
But just as bad was Florida State’s actions, or, more appropriately, lack of action.
According to an investigative report in the New York Times:
"University administrators, in apparent violation of federal law, did not promptly investigate either the rape accusation or (a) witness’s admission that he had videotaped part of the encounter … records show that Florida State’s athletic department knew about the rape accusation early on, in January 2013, when the assistant athletic director called the police to inquire about the case. Even so, the university did nothing about it, allowing Mr. Winston to play the full season without having to answer any questions. After the championship game, in January 2014, university officials asked Mr. Winston to discuss the case, but he declined on advice of his lawyer."
And now, Florida State is being investigated by the U.S. Department of Education for possible violations in how it handled the situation.
Does any of this stuff sound vaguely familiar?
Let’s review. It took over a year for Florida State to investigate a serious accusation against a star athlete — conveniently after winning the lucrative national championship — and, in doing so, potentially valuable video evidence was lost. Now, the university is under federal investigation. And all of this occurred during the presidency of Eric Barron.
And yet Penn State hired him? Are we missing something here?
Whether Winston committed a crime, or the sex was consensual, as he claims, now can never be proven. Above all, what should have mattered most to the Penn State trustees — acting in the best interests of students, alumni, professors, fans, and, most important, the victims of Jerry Sandusky — was that Eric Barron was the worst choice to lead Penn State, and should never have been in contention for the presidency.
Even assuming that Barron had no knowledge of Florida State’s mistakes, still not in a million years should he have been considered a candidate. To make him one, and hire him after an "exhaustive" search and vetting process, truly ranks as one of the all-time "what were they thinking?" moments.
And by the way, if the New York Times could discover so much information about the university’s handling of the situation, why couldn’t Penn State’s search team do the same? How exhaustive could the vetting have been? Choosing Barron is like nominating Chris Christie to head up a National Bridge Commission. Hello!
But don’t forget how out-of-touch the Penn State Board of Trustees has been, firing Joe Paterno over the phone (no matter how one feels about Paterno, that is not how you treat someone who gave so much over so many decades), and willingly accepting the egregiously unfair NCAA sanctions without even a whimper of protest.
With all of the other college presidents, chief executives, and otherwise baggage-free candidates throughout the country, the only person the trustees could find to lead Penn State out of its horrendous scandal was someone who was in command during a high-profile sex scandal?
Generals, presidents and CEOs are clearly responsible when things go wrong, regardless of their involvement. The buck stops with them. Period. That’s the price of leadership, and all leaders know that when they reach that level.
In hiring Barron, Penn State is risking a monumental backlash should a high-profile sexual abuse scandal occur within the PSU community. What’s fair and accurate is irrelevant; perception is reality, and the perception among many would be that Penn State didn’t do enough to foster an abuse-free environment. And many would blame Barron based on how the events at Florida State were handled.
And God forbid, what happens if federal investigators determine that President Barron or his top executives had knowledge of the Winston affair but buried it? The embarrassment for the Penn State community would be astronomical.
So here’s what Penn State should do: Dump Barron. Immediately. Given that he doesn’t take the reins until May, it wouldn’t be a huge deal. By coming clean that they made a mistake, the trustees would actually earn the admiration and support of millions for their transparency and honesty. And Penn State could finally find the right leader to guide it out of its minefield.
It is imperative that Penn State trustees realize one inarguable principle: the university is now, and will forever be, different. It will always be under the spotlight, scrutinized — sometimes unfairly — more than any other university on the planet. That is not opinion, but a cold, hard fact.