For many institutions, image is everything

November 20, 2011|By TIM ROWLAND |

In a tragic story filled with winceable moments, few ironies can match the fact that when Penn State needed an authority on ethics, it turned to a multinational pharmaceutical corporation. If we’re divining for answers in this whole mess, we might have just hit a gusher.

Andre Agassi once appeared in a long-running ad campaign for Cannon cameras under the catchphrase, “Image is everything.”

It’s not, of course, except in the fact that we too often treat it as such. Penn State, a major institution, gets caught in the middle of a horrible scandal, so when it needs a full internal investigation to find out what went wrong, it turns to the CEO of another major institution, Merck Pharmaceuticals, to lead the way.

It takes one (institution) to know one, I suppose. But this strikes me as taking the wheel of the Titanic and handing it over to the captain of the Exxon Valdez.

I can’t help but think that at this point in time, we don’t need a corporate mogul to lead the investigation, we need one of any number of no-nonsense grandmothers that you and I both know a mess of.

This is a human tragedy, and large institutions are not inherently human.

The century loosely bounded by the Civil War and World War II was about invention and innovation. The decades that have followed have been about taking those innovations and inventions and super-sizing them.

Thomas Jefferson’s nation of small farmers has been replaced by a handful of agricultural industries that raise hogs in skyscrapers and take out patents on green plants.

Community banks consolidated, grew and consolidated some more until banks became so large that their investing departments were unwittingly buying up rotten mortgages issued by their own lending departments.

Health, education, energy — all have subscribed to the notion that bigger is better, that the gains realized through economies of scale are worth the loses that come with dehumanization and inflexibility.

Time and time again, we see this pattern. When these institutions are functioning as intended, they are admirably productive and efficient. It would be foolish to tear them down. But when something goes wrong, it can become catastrophic because these institutional machines have no other setting besides full steam ahead, and no provision for course change when agility is called for.

Nor do they have any component that allows for, accepts and corrects failures within the system.

Instead, we hear this familiar trilogy: 1. It didn’t happen. 2. It did happen, but we didn’t know about it. 3. We did know about it, but the laws don’t apply to us.

In NFL parlance, do everything you must to protect the shield. Reality doesn’t matter, because image is everything.

In my experience, the bigger the institution, the more loathe it is to admit that anything, large or small, could ever happen within its walls. Millions are spent on PR offices that are paid to tell us that mass layoffs are really “enhanced separation packages.” Inquiries into the least little unpleasantness are stonewalled. Whistleblowers are crushed, and their characters called into question.

Penn State is just the latest case. People are fired before, in the eyes of the law, a crime has been proved. Why? Because it looks bad for the institution if it does nothing. Penn State blamed the fast-moving news cycle for the need to take immediate action. You need to look like you’re in charge of the situation even if you’re not, and even if your action makes no sense. And especially if, at root, you and the culture you propagated might be at fault, particularly in the sense of athletic-department tails that are permitted to wag dogs.

There will still be a million kids clawing to get into Penn State because they’ve been told (mostly by Penn State) that a degree from Penn State will guarantee success.

Maybe. But I look around and see HCC, Wilson, Hood, Shepherd, and I know they all have problems, but I also know they have men and women with whom you can sit down and talk. Men and women who look in the mirror every morning and see themselves (and hold themselves accountable) rather than some institutional monolith of bylaws and procedures.

Anymore, I’m starting to feel the same about anything huge, be it in the fields of education, medicine, finance, technology, government or quasi-government. There’s an argument to be made that if an institution is too big to fail, it already has.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. His email address is

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