What does it take to act with courage? What does it take to be the anti-bystander — the one who speaks up rather than stay silent? The officials at Penn State University have modeled the opposite of courage. The cowardly Nittany Lions top executives deemed it too risky to speak the truth and “out” one of their own. Faced with information about former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky’s alleged involvement in sexually abusing a 10-year-old boy, former university president Graham B. Spanier and other top university officials convinced themselves that it was reasonable, or as one email suggested, “humane,” to avoid reporting Sandusky to the authorities. Instead they chose to say nothing and do nothing, and Sandusky allegedly sexually molested boys for many more years.
How easy it is to convince ourselves and others to avoid dealing with the stresses and potential fall-outs that come from exposing atrocious behavior. Recently a friend and colleague took the opposite tactic and spoke up after she and two other women had an encounter at the Union League of Philadelphia, a private club that first admitted women in 1986. The three, according to Ilene Wasserman, founder of ICW Consulting Group, were seated at a table in an empty dining room, only to be asked to move 15 minutes later as the table they were “mistakenly” seated at belonged to a club whose president was adamant about “not permitting women to sit there.” Recognizing that organizations committed to change must recognize the “hidden minefields that are left over from previous periods of time,” Wasserman got the story out on WHYY, the Philadelphia-based public radio station.