PSU's tragedy of bureaucracy

Posted: November 17, 2011

In the wake of the scandal at Penn State, we are forced to consider how such an egregious abdication of responsibility could occur. It is too easy, and ultimately unhelpful, to call those involved depraved and rest assured of our superiority. Penn State's administrators are not monsters, and yet we must reckon with accusations that they acted monstrously in failing to protect the most vulnerable among us.

One of the most infamous instances of moral neglect involved the 1964 assault and murder of Catherine "Kitty" Genovese over a half-hour period in Queens, New York. Despite Genovese's cries for help and the reported presence of numerous witnesses, no one intervened. Princeton psychologist John Darley has pointed to a "diffusion of responsibility" in such cases: As the number of spectators goes up, each one's sense of personal responsibility goes down.

This sort of moral diffusion seems plausible at Penn State. There are suggestions that knowledge of Jerry Sandusky's alleged crimes was widespread. It's not hard to imagine that each person involved assumed that someone - or, more precisely, someone else - would intercede. Indeed, one impetus for reporting such incidents to others - as assistant coach Mike McQueary did to head coach Joe Paterno, and as Paterno did to athletic director Tim Curley - is to expand the circle of responsibility and diminish personal obligation.

Process over person

Beyond this diffusion, there are deeper, more insidious structural factors that contribute to moral neglect in large organizations. The growth of the administrative class and of bureaucracy gives individual employees highly specialized roles within complex hierarchies. Sociologists have long noted the hazards of bureaucratization, citing the prospect of "specialists without spirit," in Max Weber's terms. As webs of authority become more elaborate, and job descriptions more focused, individuals lose a sense of personal agency and responsibility.

In this way, the part is swallowed by the whole: McQueary is accountable to Paterno, and Paterno to Curley; nothing more, nothing less. In a system of highly delineated functions, role responsibility precludes more robust personal responsibility.

The Byzantine management structures of universities and corporations promote reliance on legalistic codes to define one's obligations. The increasingly litigious character of our professional relationships, with lawyers frequently setting the terms of responsibility, furthers this. The result is an "institutional person" who is satisfied with legal and formal compliance. One way to construe what occurred at Penn State is that each person saw himself as doing his job by reporting to his supervisor and following bureaucratic procedure.

Contract vs. covenant

This model of professional responsibility can and should be challenged. In Beleaguered Rulers (2001), the ethicist William F. May contrasts a "covenantal" approach to professional responsibility with a "contractual" approach. The contractual approach tends to reduce responsibility to compliance with bureaucratic procedure. One's duties are defined by contracts, given special weight by the fact that lawsuits are aimed at breaches of contract.

From the covenantal perspective, by contrast, professional responsibilities arise from the relationship with those affected by the skills of the professional. For May, a covenant rests on bonds of trust and reciprocal fidelity - the faith that we all work to protect each other and the common good to the extent of our powers and influence.

From the contractual perspective, one's professional responsibility is tied to the terms of the contract between employer and employee. The covenant includes the broader community to which the professional provides her particular skills, enabling her to identify obligations that aren't easily expressed in a contract.

The failure of those in authority at Penn State to respond adequately to the alleged sexual abuse is symptomatic of an approach to moral responsibility that rests solely on contract, procedure, and process. If the professional culture at institutions like Penn State were more covenantal, concern for the well-being of everyone involved would drive people to be more interested in and committed to action. While the contractual perspective encourages one to act out of self-interest and self-protection, the covenantal perspective invites one to act on behalf of the community.

As we try to understand what happened and what failed to happen at Penn State, we must ask broader questions about all our institutions. Do they cultivate a capacity to act on behalf of others, no matter what their role or status? Or do they reward inaction and loyalty to procedure, and so unwittingly lay the groundwork for complacency and complicity with evil?

Mark Wilson is an assistant professor in the ethics program at Villanova University, of which Mark Doorley is the director. They can be reached at and