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Choices Large and Small Like Joe Paterno’s

In reading about the the grievous errors committed by Joe Paterno and others at Penn State, I recalled a management challenge at my local business — one that we handled differently. We have a small daycare center that is licensed and inspected by the State of New Hampshire. Our director and most of our staff have been there for many years, but we do have turnover and we hire new providers from time to time.

One day several years ago our daycare director called me to report an incident. An employee who had been with us for only a few months had lost her temper and pushed a toddler away from her quite forcefully. The child had been propelled backwards and fallen hard onto his backside. No injury had occurred, though the child had been frightened. The director had immediately sent the staff member home, and then she contacted me to determine what to do.

Sometimes it is hard to make the right decision in business, but on that day the necessary course of action was clear. We fired the offending employee right after the call, spoke to the child’s parents to inform them of the incident, wrote to all of the parents of children in our daycare center, and contacted the State of New Hampshire daycare inspector to let our state supervisor know what had happened.

Why did we proceed in this way? Our sole motivation at the time was the protection of the children in our care. A provider who cannot control her temper, although she had not broken the law that day, showed that she had the potential to do harm. Those facts were enough for us to want to separate her from the kids that we look after. As a father, I would expect no less from any business looking after my children.

But on further reflection, beyond the interests of the children, all of our other motivations pushed us towards the same action. Once we knew that we had a problem employee on our hands, our legal liability in the case of future harm was enormous. And the health of our daycare business was immediately under threat, had we not acted in the interests of our children and families.

For those three reasons — morality, legal liability and business reputation — Joe Paterno’s behavior is inexplicable to me. In the case of his predator former assistant coach, he should have confronted Jerry Sandusky and called the police immediately in order to protect the children who were being violated. He had ample moral and legal grounds then and there for that action.

However, even if Paterno had been reasoning solely in the narrow self-interest of his football program and his undoubted friendship with Sandusky, he should have done the same thing. Did he think that his coach would not be caught one day? Did he think that any scandal could be hushed up and he, his football team, and his university would be spared enormous controversy?

For me, all pressures pointed in only one direction, and in our relatively minor situation, though no injury had occurred, the potential for future harm made our course of conduct more than clear. In the case of Paterno, let’s up the stakes even more. One wonders what he and the other people at Penn State would have done had coach Sandusky been caught in a murder. Would Paterno and the university administration have hushed that up, too?

Joe Paterno comes out of this situation as a sad old man, evil and stupid.

Addendum: The Chabad rabbi at Dartmouth, Moshe Gray, has written a brief, thoughtful piece on his blog regarding the guidance that scripture could have provided to Joe Paterno.

Addendum: A reader comments:

One thing that strikes me about Paterno is what it says about the institutionalized dishonesty in higher education today. From affirmative action, to college sports, to the corrupt curriculum, to self-dealing by Board members, it is all about preserving “the brand” and concealing warts and embarrassments. In that environment you know that what the corrupt president of Penn State was thinking is “Oh dear, what will this do to fundraising if this comes out?”

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