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Malcolm Gladwell: Penn State Leaders ‘Deserve Our Sympathy, Not Our Censure’ After Sandusky Scandal

In his new book Talking To Strangers, best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell examines the Sandusky sex-abuse scandal and the decision-making by Penn State leadership in response to the initial reports of wrongdoing by the longtime assistant coach.

Gladwell, who’s known for challenging conventional wisdom with provocative claims about everything from first impressions to underdogs, and now to strangers, wrote that the scandal wasn’t as much a cover-up as it was an unfortunate example of people “defaulting to the truth,” one of the phenomena that the book’s based on.

Gladwell referenced psychologist Tim Levine in defining “defaulting to the truth” as the assumption that the people we deal with are honest and are telling the truth. He said this plays a large role in our interactions with strangers and is why Mike McQueary, Graham Spanier, Tim Curley, and Gary Schultz all acted as they did after learning of allegations against Sandusky and failed to act accordingly.

“We default to truth — even when that decision carries terrible risks — because we have no choice,” Gladwell wrote. “Society cannot function otherwise. And in those rare instances where trust ends in betrayal, those victimized by default to truth deserve our sympathy, not our censure.”

Joe Paterno was mentioned only a handful of times in the chapter, the focus of which is more so on the allegations and Spanier’s decision-making. This may be because of the way Gladwell characterized Sandusky as a “stranger” to Spanier and McQueary, as opposed to Paterno, his longtime boss.

Most of the Sandusky chapter is devoted to detailing the complexities of the case and information Penn State leadership based their response on. Although he didn’t claim Jerry Sandusky’s innocence, Gladwell acknowledged conflicting details, changing narratives, and “gray area situations.” He even cited John Ziegler, perhaps the former assistant’s most vocal supporter. However, Gladwell seemed to be more interested in pardoning Spanier than defending Sandusky or invalidating victims claims.

“Do you think that if you were the president of Penn State, confronted with the same set of facts and questions, you would have behaved any differently?” he wrote.

Later, Gladwell added “Does [Spanier] regret not asking one more follow-up question, not quietly asking around? Of course he does. But defaulting to the truth is not a crime. It’s a fundamentally human tendency.”

Gladwell even went as far as to laud Spanier’s leadership while recalling an emotional meeting between him and his senior staff after Schultz and Curley were first charged.

“This is why people liked Graham Spanier,” he wrote. “It’s why he had such a brilliant career at Penn State. It’s why you and I would want to work for him. We want Graham Spanier as our president.”

Gladwell also related the Sandusky scandal to the sex-abuse scandal at Michigan State revolving around Larry Nassar. He compared the Penn State’s leaders’ trust in Sandusky to that of the parents of the gymnasts affected to showcase how pervasive and unavoidable defaulting to the truth is.

“We accept the fact that being a parent requires a fundamental level of trust in the community of people around your child,” Gladwell wrote. “If every coach is assumed to be a pedophile, then no parent would let their child leave the house, and no sane person would ever volunteer to be a coach.”

Jay Paterno, son of Joe and also a former assistant, wrote a reaction to the book last week after being given an advanced copy of it over the summer. He focused on the consequences of not just university leaders “defaulting to the truth,” but also the general public.

“People defaulted the truth about Penn State and Joe Paterno because they believed that powerful institutions always cover up crimes,” he wrote. “The misleading Grand Jury presentment led to a mismatched University response driving a media and society default to misplaced guilt.”

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About the Author

Anthony Colucci

Anthony Colucci was once Onward State’s managing editor and preferred walk-on honors student who majored in psychology and public relations. Despite being from the make-believe land of Central Jersey, he was never a Rutgers fan. If you ever want to know how good Saquon Barkley's ball security is, ask Anthony what happened when he tried to force a fumble at the Mifflin Streak. If you want to hear the story or are bored and want to share prequel memes, follow @_anthonycolucci on Twitter or email him at [email protected]. All other requests and complaints should be directed to Onward State media contact emeritus Steve Connelly.

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