Jul 13, 2012

How far should a University go to protect its reputation?

“How many know or revere the name of Paul Berg? He's the sole Nobel Prize winner affiliated with Penn State, a graduate who shared in the 1980 Chemistry award for his work on recombinant DNA technology. Demands by alumni for him to be honored with a statue, or to name the main library after him instead of Paterno, are notable by their absence”.

Those are the words of Jim McLennan, a blogger and sports fan whom I never met, just happened to read about while sifting through news reports and commentary re the Penn State “Scandal” but would like to quote here and give him credit for making me think about this. For full reference, here is the link to his post: http://www.azsnakepit.com/2012/7/13/1028686/penn-state-college-sports-culture-reform-

Consider the above comment in conjunction with the following testimony:

"Janitor B explained to the Special Investigative Counsel that reporting the incident "would have been like going against the President of the United States in my eyes." "I know Paterno has so much power, if he wanted to get rid of someone, I would have been gone." He explained "football runs this University," and said the University would have closed rank to protect the football program at all costs."
-- Testimony from the Freeh Report

It’s telling that everybody refers to this as the Penn State “Scandal”, rather than, say, the Penn State Crimes, or Crimes Against Children. Even crimes with small c would have been more decent and accurate description of their actions. “Scandal” leaves open the possibility of exoneration, of not holding the institution itself responsible for its crimes but isolated individuals. Individuals acting in concert, but still, individuals. The University somehow finding itself “in a scandal” vs. Enabling child abuse for 14 years. Think about how your peception of the events changes when you pronounce these phrases aloud to yourself. That’s the key to what happened and also the key to repairing those crimes.

So far public responses have placed the blame primarily on individual perpetrators, starting with the coach, to the University President, and as of now reaching the Board and the University as an institution that failed to heed and report criminal actions. And rightly so, but that’s only the beginning, the tip of the iceberg. You can condemn and consign to Hell (as you understand it) and prison each one of those individuals, but that won’t do justice to their victims who had to live through hell on earth. The closest we can get to doing justice to them would be to ensure that such abuses are never repeated. And that is not just making them technically impossible on university grounds. Restricting access to locker rooms and increasing oversight and reporting on coaches and sports teams is a patch, a band-aid on a severely damaged body. Abuses of this sort can only be prevented by making them culturally impossible. I would have liked to, and almost did, write “unthinkable” but sadly that’s not realistic. The coach’s behavior alone shows that they are very well thinkable, at least by individual minds; mentally ill minds, but nevertheless human minds. History and the 20th century itself show that horrific crimes, from abuse to genocide are indeed thinkable. Which is why the Paterno’s family statement that he couldn’t have possibly ignored or covered up such abuses because that sort of thing is too horrible and therefore unthinkable at least by him and therefore unlikely to have happened means nothing to me. Nothing is unthinkable.

To make child abuse on university grounds culturally impossible, Penn State’s culture of football reverence, the school’s dependence on BigSports money, and the culture of discouraging dissent and disagreement among its top officials down to the janitors must change. As the Freeh report notes, Paterno was not the only one aware of the abuses. Janitors who were interviewed reported that they witnessed part of those abuses but were afraid to speak up. A graduate student who did speak up was effectively ignored. That shows not only a criminal lack of concern at the top but also at the institutional level. Institutions, organizations, any kind of group that discourages dissent and disagreement, that cultivates conformity and consent is prone to suffer such crimes whether directly or indirectly by discouraging whistle-blowing and just plain speaking up. The last decade alone has provided us plenty of examples where lack of dissent and a culture of conformity led to institutionally condoned criminal acts: Enron and the Catholic Church being the most prominent ones. Penn State needs to restructure not just its Board of Trustees and locker rooms. Its culture needs a restructuring as well.

Asking “how could Paterno not have done anything” only scratches the surface. That will prompt the public to re-examine his legacy and university officials to re-evaluate the school’s policies and procedures. What it will not do is make everybody at Penn State re-examine the institution’s culture. Asking “why didn’t witnesses to the crimes speak up”, “why did nobody believe the graduate student who did speak up” will hopefully result to further re-evaluation and policies and educational initiatives that explicitly encourage and reward whistle-blowing (e.g., “if you see something, tell somebody!”, “silence=crime”). Which is not as simple as it sounds and takes effort and time. Will that be enough?

I don’t think so. Encouraging reporting and rewarding whistle-blowing are tactical measures, not strategies that could, in the long, term overhaul the institutional culture. They will increase crime-reporting, and prevent similar abuses from taking place on university grounds, but will not prevent them from happening altogether in the first place. From a long term perspective they are half-measures. And they do not do justice to the victims. I hope to be proven wrong here. I’d like to hear one of the victims say that such procedural measures make them feel slightly hopeful, that to them such measures are a sufficient response on the part of the university. Common sense and countless studies on institutional corruption and change suggest otherwise. University officials, policy drafters, faculty and students should know that already; because they have taught and studied what basic sociology, organizational psychology, and frankly, humanities courses make plain clear within a few weeks into a semester: abuse is not an individual problem only, it takes a village to do the kind of damage done to Penn State’s victims. This isn’t a case of “bad apples”, much like we’d like it to be. Corrupt individuals survive and thrive in corrupt institutions. Whistle-blowing might be viewed as an act of courage but it is not the answer to this problem. Not only because institutions with a culture of conformity explicitly or implicitly discourage it, but because in and of itself it cannot change the institution itself, not culturally.

The university, as an institution, did also a disservice to the larger community of families and high-school students and their schools that “supply” talent to its sports program. The abuse cannot be undone, the victims cannot get their childhoods back, but the community of incoming and current students can be served better than with simple procedural measures and board restructurings. No university is an island; which is to say, no university can thrive in isolation from the surrounding community. Penn State owes its community larger initiatives of local development that enable disadvantaged students to attend and graduate from Penn State without depending completely on football. Instead of channeling more funds into sports programs, redirect, reallocate or just plain start development funds or scholarships for high school students from the local community. Without professionalizing the sports or any program itself. Sports can and should be taught, and students with athletic skills should have access to programs that help them develop those skills. But development is not the same as professionalization. And universities should not be the ground for professionalizing sports or anything for that matter.

How can then Penn State change its culture? How much change is needed and where? The Board of Trustees announced they will take full responsibility of the crimes, one day only after the Freeh report was published. They mentioned reducing the term of board members from 15 to 12 years, as an example of the measures they will take. That’s not enough. Taking responsbility for such crimes involves taking larger and longer-term initiatives to prevent their re-occurence.

They can start by listening to the community. Current and prospective students, parents, and those whose only chance at higher education is Penn State’s football program need to weigh in too. And they can continue taking responsibility by investing in the community around Penn State. Many members of its football team have and will continue to count on Penn State’s football program as a way out of disadvantaged, non-privileged lives. Scrapping the football program in single stroke is unlikely to help prevent abuses and might be a disservice to that community. Perhaps the school needs to take a sabbatical from its football program as a first step. But in the long term, students whose only ticket to college is sports would be better served by reforming, not removing, college sports. BigSports needs to be reformed into small sports; competitive but secondary to the university’s mission and purpose, which should be to educate, not to professionalize, neither sports nor any other field.

Figuring out how to make that a reality, how to restructure programs around educational rather than professional goals will take effort, resources, and time. Universities might think they cannot afford to do this, ever. Tuition costs will increase if Penn State’s and any university’s athletics program is decoupled from BigSports. Players and coaches depend on the professionalization of college sports, that’s their livelihood.Why should other colleges with a strong athletics program take the blow because of Penn State’s lack of oversight?

I find all the above arguments weak. Reasonable but weak in the face of the damage that has been done. Because child abuse was not just a case of lack of oversight, attention, reporting, or whistle-blowing. The university, at the institutional level, as an organization, enabled child abuse by treating its sports program as a stand-alone organization, immune to complaints and challenges from outsiders, such as, say, mothers reporting inappropriate child treatment by its members, and also by fostering a culture of, effectively, worshipping football and, ultimately its football-dependent reputation. To counter-arguments of “lack of funds” and “tuition will increase” and “that’s not realistic” I say: a) funds can be raised; Penn State received [$208 million] in donations in the last year alone. It’s the school’s job, in light of its crimes, to figure out how to direct more funds away from its football-dependent reputation and towards educational goals, b) again, in light of its crimes, the least Penn State can do to give back to the community it so much damaged is to figure out how to stabilize tuition fees while increasing educational non-ahtletic opportunities for children and high school students, and c) words such as “realistic” and “impractical” and “legacy” lose their meaning in the face of child abuse.
Penn State owes its community a different “reality” from the one it offered in the past 14 years. And that reality will need to be reconstructed. That includes things like figuring out how to provide future students educational opportunities while developing the local community, and do all that without increasing tuition fees, and without professionalizing its sport programs. Sounds impossible, it will take years and a lot of collective effort and it might not be completely achieved anytime soon, but then again, the university owes its victims and their community a different “reality” because the one it offered them up to now included and condoned child abuse. If they can do damage, they can do repair. Claiming repair to be impractical, costly and impossible is unjust and, in effect, unethical at this point.

I’d like to direct those doubting the pervasive culture of football worship to this quote by the State College Police, cited in Jim McLean’s blog:
"After Paterno was fired on November 9th last year, a demonstration took place on the campus, involving 4-5,000 people. According to State College police: "The crowd quickly turned from a peaceful demonstration to a riotous mob. The mob began damaging vehicles and rolled a news van. The mob attempted to light vehicles on fire, and tore down light posts and street signs. The mob threw rocks, bottles and hard objects at the police and citizens. Citizens and officers were injured by the mob's criminal behavior."
Source: http://www.centrecountycrimestoppers.org/index.phpcontent=crime_detail2&crime_alert_id=407

“This was not to protest a senior faculty figure's systematic abuse of children. Or even because school executives allegedly "helped cover up suspicions of child abuse to protect the school and its vaunted football program." No, they were rioting solely because Paterno had been fired”, Jim McLennan points out.

Check the sources, ask alumni and current members of Penn State, friends and football fans. I doubt, but hope, you can prove this description basically inaccurate.

So instead of erecting statues of coaches on campus, start educating students about Penn State’s academic value. And start building a reputation of academic and community achievements rather than one of professionalization, of any field. I’m not suggesting disregarding athletics or leading academic programs unprofessionally. Professionalism is not the same as professionalization. I’m suggesting stop the professionalization of sports and better still, stop the professionalization, period. What happened at the football program could, theoretically, happen in any other field, whether science, arts or the humanities. Corruption isn’t unique to football programs, to sports, to Penn State or any particular field, program or institution. But it does thrive among those with reputations that are “too big to fail”, too good to be challenged by insiders and outsiders alike. And the pervasive professionalization of any field makes its members, whether individuals or institutions, prone to dependence on reputation. It’s not just football. It’s not just Penn State. Any university or institution with similar dependence on reputation coupled with a culture of worship, whether sports or science or anything really, is at risk. That’s the main lesson those outside Penn State can take from this.

At least that’s what I’ve learned. When I was in high-school I wrote an essay on child exploitation in the developed world as part of my university entrance exams. I wrote about it being the result of failures in civil society, in moral priorities, even in the democracy itself as an institution. What I did not write about was its presence in educational institutions. To me that was, in effect, unthinkable. The reviewers/graders gave it high marks suggesting it lacked nothing in content at least. Up until the crimes made the news I still thought that higher ed and child abuse do not belong in the same sentence. Try thinking about it without thinking of Penn State. It doesn’t compute. Nothing in the 14 intervening years had changed my high-school views on this. 10 years of graduate school in US universities had given me no reasons let alone occasions to rethink that. Penn State proved me wrong; naive at best and unrealistic at worse. Wherever there are corrupt institutions, wherever there is a reputation at stake that is too big to fail, child exploitation is possible.

Nevertheless, I hope I’m wrong. I hope Penn State’s crimes are a one-of-a-kind trend of events, the result of corrupt individuals rather than corrupt institutions rather than a culture of misplaced professionalization coupled with reputation-dependence. Perhaps somebody or something that I haven’t considered can prove me wrong. But as of now, everything I heard and read suggest that as long as child abuse happened so easily and for so long in the context of Penn State, it is not only “thinkable” but also sociologically possible that it could happen to any institution with a similar culture.

See also: Interactive Graphic: Penn State's ridiculous response to the abuse, day by day:

Personal Update:
I posted the question on my facebook wall  straight up: Does anybody know who Paul Berg is?". Only 2 people said they didn't know him. I have about 250 “friends” who post quite often, I would say 90% of them are academics and/or students, and since the Freeh report came out NOBODY in my facebook has posted anything related to Penn State, the report, the whole “scandal”. No reactions whatsoever. I saw posts about their workdays, their lunches, their birthday parties, their conferences, but nothing re this despicable thing. If people have enough time and mental energy to post about the things above that they posted they should have had some time to comment on Penn State. I’m baffled by the silence. My guess is nobody wants to go on record expressing their concern, sadness, or worries about this issue. At best they keep such discussions offline. At worst, they have better things to think about.