WASHINGTON -- A research project examining the lack of oversight by college trustees in athletic matters already was under way when last year's child sex abuse scandal at Penn State put the worst possible emphasis on the issue.
Tuesday -- coincidentally the day that former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky effectively received a life sentence in the molestation case -- the results of that project were made public during the annual meeting of the Knight Commission here, with a conclusion concisely summed up by University of Virginia president emeritus John Casteen.
"The old rule, that boards should have their noses in the business and their fingers out," Casteen said, "is a great rule."
For years, the watchdog Knight group has argued for college presidents to exercise better control of their athletic departments -- in particular football -- and Casteen, while agreeing with that approach, furthered the notion of trustees' "obligation" in his report, "Trust, Accountability and Integrity: Board responsibilities for intercollegiate athletics."
"The boards that do things right," he said, "aren't the ones that end up on Page 1.
"As Penn State evolved into a national issue, it created a huge opportunity to define principles and teach board members in ways that would make boards more competent to adopt and implement policy."
Casteen's report -- one of six during the Knight session that addressed ethical, commercial and academic challenges raised by the arms race of big-time college sports -- noted that only half of colleges surveyed had a board policy on athletics, roughly half had a policy of protection of minors, only 35 percent of the boards said they received sufficient information with regard to NCAA rules.
"While we were working on this," Casteen said, "we were watching Penn State's board try to deal with what it was facing, and listening to board members saying in public they didn't know about these [accusations against Sandusky].
"The thing Penn State's board did -- two members resigned, including the chair, a completely new board structure of committees was developed by the end of November. I worked with them as a consultant during that time, and the pace with which they took on the problems was something to watch.
"But it's the kind of incident that triggers acts of Congress. I don't think anybody wants Congress to be more intrusive in higher education, because higher education is such a vast and diverse aggregation of entities.
"So it's a harder issue. I wouldn't expect the Knight Commission to jump right on the advice we've given about expecting board members to be more competent players, and more active. But the response, in more than 90 percent of the cases, went in the direction we're suggesting."
Boards of trustees, he recommended, must provide the last line of responsibility in a school's sports behavior, because, "As the fiduciary body charged with being the steward of their institution or system, they really have no other option."