John Surma, vice chair of the Penn State board of trustees

Update on Monday, November 14, 2011: Be sure to read Rebekah Burch Basinger's blog post on the Penn State crisis. Rebekah makes many excellent points about what the university board should have been doing all along. Crisis management is important, but avoiding crises is even better.

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Original post on Friday, November 11, 2011: It's not often that a governing board in higher education makes the national news. Even as the horrific story out of Penn State is still developing, nearly every news report is referring to the decisions of the university's board of trustees.

As of yesterday, the board had fired president Graham Spanier, two other executives, and coach Joe Paterno, the embodiment of the school's ethos, brand, and spirit. According to the grand jury report, all had known about the sexual abuse that had been occurring on campus over the course of several years.

The board's swift decision led to a complex mix of outpouring and outrage -- even a small student riot broke out after the announcement Wednesday night. The Philadelphia Inquirer wondered why university officials did not seem to have a crisis communication plan already in place, even when the grand jury had been investigating top administrators.

The university will most certainly move past this episode, and probably be stronger because of it, but the course ahead will be rocky.

As the governing body of a public institution, Penn State's board of trustees is bound by rules and regulations that private boards are not expected to follow, and it includes political appointees and ex officio members who have little connection with the university. Yet from the perspective of good governance, the board seems to be making difficult but necessary choices. In crisis mode, the board is managing its communication well, even when the former president did not. Its decisions have been clear and timely; they will probably preserve the future of the institution.

Private boards have much to learn from this case study, and we will be paying attention to see how the Penn State board continues to manage this situation. Your theological school will likely not have to address such a high-profile situation, but there are important lessons to learn here about decisive action when the situation calls for it, and clear communication for the good of the institution.

 

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