Sometimes good people make bad decisions. But this situation goes well beyond that tired observation. The Freeh report is nothing less than an indictment of malfeasance on the part of the leadership of the university, including the Board of Trustees. The board is portrayed as providing inadequate oversight of the administration, being overly deferential to the president and his decisions of what to bring before the board, and unwilling or unable to ask the difficult questions necessary to ensure that the university, its reputation, its assets, and the broader community were protected.
We are seeing here in a university setting something found all too frequently in the corporate world: an inclination on the part of board members to cede unchecked power and discretion to the executives whose actions they are supposed to be overseeing. Chief executives all too often have too big a role in selecting board members, who then reward them with not just undeserved loyalty but also casual oversight, which breeds boards that turn out to be lax when time of crisis requires their serious watchdoggery. The inevitable end result is a board under fire for not doing the job it should have been doing all along. This is not just a sad story, but also an old and recurring one.
Board members need to see their role as a serious one, not just a high-visibility perquisite of power and connections. Between the doings at Penn State and the recent turmoil at (my alma mater) the University of Virginia, it's clear there is an awful lot of room for mayhem in the boardroom. This latest angle on the Penn State debacle invites Tennesseans to wonder if board governance in our state's higher education system is any more vigilant.
A version of this post also appears at BruceBarry.net.