The “Big Ten” Questions That Really Matter for Penn State

Leadership of Penn State are now sitting down to reflect on the institution’s present and its uncertain future.  They must do everything possible to question the ingrained orthodoxies that allowed some within the school to systemically hide perversion and dismiss moral courage.   This exercise will require original methods for engaging the entire community. The key question for Penn State to consider is not, what do we do?   The question that will determine Penn State’s entire future begins with the word “why”.

The current 157-word mission statement of the University has little, if any, relevance to the scandal still unfolding.  Buried within the mission statement is the fundamental idea that the University “educates” students.   Yet “educating” is table stakes in today’s competitive world of higher education.  Educating is also a “how”. Penn State should ask itself: Why do we choose to educate?  To what end?  For who’s benefit?

It’s very difficult for the leaders of any organization to re-imagine the words and big ideas that answer the fundamental question: why do we exist?  For Penn State, this should be a gut wrenching and emotional process.  It will not happen quickly and it can’t happen in an echo chamber of those wedded to old thinking.

The language of a mission statement should be a beacon signaling to all within its context that an enforceable social contract is alive and valued.  Missions that are meaningless become so when the leaders of the organization pay it no heed.


Below are ten questions that can guide the thinking of Penn State’s leaders as they take on the transformation of the institution.

1)   Why do we exist?  Author Simon Sinek has taught all of us that, “people don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.”  So, why does Penn State do what it does?  If they can’t answer this question, they should not go any further.

2)   How will we ensure that all voices on campus and off are heard in this process?  Collaboration is not a choice for Penn State; it’s a mandate.  Both in person and virtual tools should be employed to allow the most vocal critic and bullish alumni to surface their thoughts and ideas.

3)   How clear and succinct can we make the new mission language so that it sticks?  Mission statements written by committee are exactly what Penn State has today.   The words themselves should be minimalist and designed with a sixth grader’s vocabulary in mind.  There is no set number of words to a mission statement, but less is always more. Imagine if Steve Jobs polled everyone at Apple about how many buttons there were to be on an i-Phone.  Let’s be very thankful that he chose only one.

4)   Who will be held to account for owning the new mission? If the words that arise are but an exercise in creativity, they will be meaningless.  The words of a mission must be translated into other documents including work contracts, codes of conduct and ethics, as well as student/athlete agreements.

5)   What aspects of the statement are measurable?  SSM Health Care in the Midwest has one of the most succinct missions I have encountered: “Through our exceptional health care services, we reveal the healing presence of God.” Year after year, they measure the idea of “exceptional” in ways that drives behavior of all who work there.

6)   What, if any role, do sports and campus activities have in the core mission?  Penn State can’t avoid this question.  Over the course of decades, the football program became a dangerous and misaligned moon without any nearby planet to ground its orbit.  Campus activities are but one facet of the school, and they all pale in comparison to what Penn State will discover in its ultimate answer to “why” it exists.

7)   How will all the other organizations on campus pivot off of the new language? In light of the scandal, every campus sub-function should ask itself if the words of their missions are relevant.  For example, Penn State’s Internal Audit Department is “Committed to performing value-added, risk-based audits, designed to independently review, test, and evaluate the financial, electronic, and operational controls”.  Really?

8)   When will the football program actually publish a mission?  As you search the web for the program’s mission (I could not find it), you read a lot about the mascot of Penn State and little to nothing about nurturing student athletes. A key word search for the word “knowledge” within the athletics department web site pops up an actual person named Knowledge Timmons.   Knowledge is a football player.

9)   What is the vision for the University?  Many believe that a mission and a vision statement are interchangeable.  Penn State’s current vision is to “be the nation’s finest university in the integration of teaching, research, and service.” Clearly the leadership of the football program were not “integrated” with the rest of the school.  Time to hit reset.

10) Finally, the school must ask: How will we communicate the new ideas across the campus and before the entire country?  In my experience, leaders under-communicate mission, vision and strategy by an order of magnitude of ten.  Given the size and scope of the University, it will take months and perhaps a full year to ensure that the new ideas and language of the mission are understood and accepted across the school. Then the hard work really begins as the school must live up to the words and turn them into actions and behaviors that will rebuild the trust.

Penn State is at a critical point that will determine the arch of its future.   If their leadership answers the above questions, then they should be called leaders.   If they hide from these questions, then they are simply punting the school’s core identity down a dark field and may never fully recover from the scandal that is still unfolding.