Anyone who didn't know it before Graham Spanier, ex-president of Penn State, was indicted surely knows it now: When the university was caught hiding Jerry Sandusky's molestation of boys for almost two decades, the world of higher education changed for good.
Child molestation is not new; perpetrators have been identified and penalized for decades. But what is new is the understanding that child abuse is not committed only by individuals, but also by organizations, and that their leaders may be held culpable.
It would be easy to go on a rant: "How dare higher education allow such a thing to go on for so long!" Children have been abused for a long time within a variety of reputable organizations, including the Roman Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts of America, Big Brothers, the YMCA, and day-care providers. The list of accomplice groups goes on and on. Child abuse is known to have occurred in educational settings from preschool to college. But until the Sandusky case, the oversight organizations have been more or less off the hook.
But not anymore.
Organizations, and their leaders, are now seen as liable when their employees engage in behaviors that harm children and youth, especially when they knew about it and didn't take steps to stop it. They are culpable for failing to follow accepted prerequisites for child protection.
If leaders in higher education don't take action to protect children from exploitation, they had better brace for an avalanche of lawsuits, or worse. For them, the Sandusky case is a canary in the coal mine, warning that danger lies ahead for those who decide not to take precautions.
At Penn State, the institution's leaders did not use their positions of authority to safeguard children, but decided instead, according to the indictments, to safeguard themselves. After the scandal, some colleges quickly stepped forward to confess that they had similar problems and were taking swift action to address them. College administrators, it seems, are finally getting the message that there will be painful repercussions for them if they fail to protect children on their campuses.
If they think about all the areas of college life where children are present, most administrators will find themselves staring at a long list of time bombs. These include not just sports programs but also child-care centers, lab schools, classes, workshops, after-school programs, and festivals and other special events.
There are also hundreds of college-associated people who work with children, whether faculty members, students, interns, volunteers, clerical workers, or food-service workers. Each child-oriented event and each university-associated worker hold the potential for safety—or for injury.
Do bureaucratic chains of command shield institutions of higher education from being sued for failing to protect children under their care? They have until now, because they could pass the responsibility from one unit to another. For example, college presidents and chancellors usually do not have oversight of athletics. Not one of the presidents of the colleges with the 25 largest sports programs has clearly stated authority over athletics, according to an analysis by The Chronicle.
Of course, it may be unreasonable to expect any one person, even a president, to know everything that is going on within an institution. However, a recent report from the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges says that more than half of Division I colleges do not adequately invest their governing boards, either, with responsibility for sports programs. And so the question remains: If the buck doesn't stop at the presidential level (and now we know that it may) or the board level, where on the campus does responsibility for malfeasance lie?
It is hard to know. But even before Spanier's indictment, the trend was in the direction of institutional culpability.
The U.S. Department of Education is investigating Penn State's compliance with federal law under the Clery Act. Penn State's accrediting agency, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, in August issued a warning that the university's accreditation was in jeopardy. And the NCAA has imposed fines and penalties on the football program. Then there are the lawsuits, as well as legal action by the university's insurance company to deny coverage of related claims because the university had failed to disclose what it knew about Sandusky's conduct.
Collectively, those responses point to a new area of organizational malfeasance. From now on, a lack of institutionalized child-safety protocols means that colleges may find themselves at organizational, financial, and legal risk if they cannot prove that they went out of their way to protect kids.
Colleges and universities are in a unique and important position, as models of how to create and enforce child-safety policies and practices. By doing so, they can show students the importance of protecting the human rights of our youngest citizens.
In the process, colleges can also protect themselves from allegations of impropriety, through protocols, staff training and supervision, mandatory reporting, and decisive measures to deal with violations when children have been put at risk of abuse.
Developing comprehensive child-protection policies does more than protect children. It also protects an organization's workers, leaders, students, financial security, and reputation.
Will higher-education administrators decide to make sure that clear rules are in place to help employees know what to do to keep kids safe? Will they provide the necessary structure and support for employees to do so? Will they penalize those who don't? We should all certainly hope so.
Yvonne Vissing, author of How to Keep Your Children Safe (University Press of New England 2007), is director of Salem State University's Center for Childhood and Youth Studies, and an international consultant in child advocacy.