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Comparing the boards of Penn State and News Corp.

By Laurie Bennett

November 10, 2011 at 1:22pm

On Wednesday night, Penn State trustees announced that they had fired the university’s president and its legendary football coach.

On Thursday, James Murdoch appeared before a committee of Parliament, to re-emphasize his limited knowledge of daily operations at News of the World, where phone hacking was rampant.

To be sure, no one at News Corp. is accused of sexually abusing young boys. No member of the Murdoch family has been accused of a crime.

Nevertheless, the allegations against the News Corp. are appalling. Hacking the voice mail of a child murder victim, thereby interfering with police investigations of the girl’s disappearance, bears comparison to the charges of child sexual abuse by a former assistant coach at Penn State.

As is the case at the university, other officials at News Corp. say Murdoch knew of the transgressions long ago but failed to stop them.

The Murdoch family continues to hold the reins of the media conglomerate, while Penn State coach Joe Paterno and college president Graham Spanier have been summarily dismissed.

One of many differences in the two situations is, of course, that the Murdoch family controls the greatest share of News Corp. voting stock, while Penn State is a publicly funded university.

But the Murdochs don’t own a majority of the voting stock.

Paterno and Rupert Murdoch are both octogenarians who have built empires and are accustomed to being in charge. (Indeed, one of the stunning aspects of the drama at State College was Paterno’s belief as of Wednesday that he could control the date and conditions of his departure.)

Penn State trustees understand the value of the football program to the overall budget of Penn State, just as News Corp. directors appreciate the Murdoch’s money-making prowess.

College trustees have an added duty - to do the right thing as an example to the student body. The reaction of some students, who clashed with police and damaged property after the announcement of Paterno’s firing, indicates that others should have been sending this message long before these young people entered college.

Perhaps the same might be said of investors willing to countenance bad behavior by top corporate officials at News Corp.

In each case, the board’s mission is to act on behalf of the larger public - taxpayers, students and faculty at Penn State; stockholders, customers and employees at News Corp.

At Penn State, despite potential conflicts and interconnections (again, similar to News Corp.), board members lived up to their responsibilities.

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