What can FIU learn from the Penn State sex abuse case?

President Emeritus Modesto A. Maidique led the university community in a discussion about leadership, values and ethical issues raised by the Penn State scandal

“This is a case of a distorted culture that has wrapped itself around a football team,” said President Emeritus Modesto A. Maidique at an FIU teach-in Jan. 26 examining the Penn State sex abuse scandal. “Terrible things happened because an aggregation of things that came before allowed it to happen.”

President Emeritus Maidique leads the FIU community in a discussion of leadership and ethics following the Penn State scandal

FIU’s Center for Leadership in the College of Business Administration and the Center for Professionalism and Ethics in the College of Law joined forces to provide the university community with a forum to study the sex-abuse case making headlines.

Participants included students, administrators and FIU Athletics staff. Makissa Lewis, a special education student, attended to hear the university’s take on the scandal. “I think this is an opportunity to learn.”

A teachable moment

Maidique, who is the Alvah H. Chapman Jr. Chair in Leadership, presented the fictional case, The Trouble at Hamilton State. The names were changed but the circumstances were the same as in the Penn State case: A grand jury indicts a former coach on charges of sexual abuse of minors on school property, while individuals and the institution look the other way.

Maidique asked, “What would you do if you walked in on your mentor in a sexual situation with a minor? Who would you tell? What if you’re the athletic director and you learned about the allegations a week later? What’s your course of action?”

The answer wasn’t as black and white as one might think. Two-thirds of the room agreed that first and foremost the sexual action needed to be stopped – either physically or by calling someone, the police or campus security, to help.

A student from Beijing, China, brought a different perspective. “What you are saving the child from now may not be better than the shame or repercussions of the news getting out,” he said. “Suicide would be highly likely where I’m from.”

Law professor Jose Gabilondo, who co-moderated the session with religious studies professor Nathan Katz, pointed out that, according to the law, a person doesn’t usually have to come to another’s defense. “In general, you don’t have a duty to rescue people who are in peril.”

Maidique explained that people are guided by different moral and ethical philosophies. Ethical egoists do what is in their own self-interest, believing it’ll all work out. Others feel a duty to do what is right regardless of what may come. Immanuel Kant professed this best in the Kantian code of ethics: Good will is a will that acts for the sake of duty, as a good-in-itself.

Heather Wight, director of marketing for FIU Athletics, said the individuals involved had no sense of duty. “They didn’t want to get involved. They chose to protect themselves rather than the young man. It shows the kind of person you are. It’s either fight or flight.”

Most of the teach-in participants agreed the university president and the athletics director had a responsibility to start an investigation as soon as it was brought to their attention.

FIU Executive Director of Sports and Entertainment Pete Garcia, who empathized with the potential professional pitfalls of a scandal of this magnitude, said the right thing to do is call Human Resources right away. “It doesn’t tarnish you if you react appropriately. It tarnishes you if you don’t do anything,” he added.

Law professor Gabilondo pushes the class to see the Penn State case from different perspectives

To the class, Gabilondo said, “I think everyone was very earnest. But, when listening, I had doubts whether you were saying what you thought you should do, wished you would do, and not what you really thought you would do.

“So how do you design a system that is designed for human beings who are flawed?”

“I don’t think these are bad people,” said Maidique of the individuals in the Penn State scandal. “That’s why culture is so important – the practices, policies and norms that people follow.”

 Who’s to blame?

Leadership is to blame for inaction at Penn State, said Maidique. The university revolved around one man – Joe Paterno. He had too much power within the institution. In this case it was a football coach, but the same would hold true if it was a scientist who brought in lots of grant money. The problem is the skewed culture that facilitates the behavior.

For FIU leaders, the takeaway is to have a functional system and healthy culture in place before a crisis occurs.

First-year law student Allan Zullinger, who is a former lacrosse coach, said he was happy with the different perspectives presented. “You think, optimistically, that you’ll do that right thing, but you never know.”

Zullinger was supposed to be in property class but says this was an opportunity to learn outside the classroom. “A lot of my classmates are very much in class-mode. But I can’t wait to tell them ‘look what you missed!’”