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On the Penn State Scandal


My good friend and close collaborator Professor Jason Wright is a relatively new prof at Penn State. He recently wrote about the scandal on his family's blog (on which I lurk :), and he agreed to let me repost his thoughtful and thorough writeup here. I have a lot of thoughts myself, but I have neither the experience nor writing skillz to say it as well as Jason. I will say that

  • The admixture of child sexual abuse and unlimited power/trust placed in the higher-ups bears a striking resemblance to the Catholic church's ongoing sexual abuse issues 
  • It is the near worship-level football culture at Penn State (and other big schools) that lead to the unlimited power/trust placed in falible human beings. I've recently been giving a lot of thought to things like celebrity and sports fandom. When you stop and think about these things, they're really strange concepts! Why do we care so deeply about things that ultimately have no direct affect on our lives? (Of course, this doesn't stop me from being a die-hard Clippers fan and dropping hard-earned cash on basketball tickets.)
  • We should focus our anger on those in power, not those who merely attend and work at the school. At any University there are a few with real power, and many who are normal people with normal priorities, hopes and dreams. When criticizing Penn State, keep in mind that there are people like Jason who had no knowledge at all of the rot occurring higher up in the administration, and students who are just like students at colleges everywhere in the U.S. 
  • It's going to be funny-sad to watch how the NCAA weighs in on all this. As they issue their high-minded opinions and impose sanctions on PSU's football team, keep in mind that this scandal involves no specific NCAA rules violations. So this craven, money-grubbing organization's inevitable putative actions will be strictly for show as a means of A) maintaining the appearance of importance and B) maintaining the cash flow from all of the other football programs that generate so much money from essentially free labor.
Whoa! That was way more than I expected to say. Okay, on to Jason's post:

Scandal

As a (newish) Penn State employee hired not long before the scandal broke, I get asked about it a lot, so I thought I'd share some of my ambivalence here.  

It could but should not go without saying how monstrous were Sandusky's years of abuse of boys in our community.  Those who knew about it and did nothing are guilty of grievous moral failure.  I am horrified by what happened both on campus and off by a former employee.  I am disgusted by the actions of the four principle (former) officials who did not blow the whistle.  I am saddened to be an employee of a University that let this happen.  

Regarding Paterno's firing, at the time I thought it was badly bungled and probably unjust.  Having read the report I it is clear, in retrospect, that the firing was appropriate, but I'm still not sure that the Board really knew that at the time.  At any rate, his reputation for moral rectitude is appropriately ruined.

Also, I am proud of many of the positive aspects of Penn State culture, especially those on display since President Spanier's departure.  For instance, from what I can tell, the new president has done an exemplary job of navigating the crisis (and presiding, generally), and of consistently doing the right and moral thing not just for the university and its employees and students, but also for the victims here.

I am pleased at how the Freeh report as assembled and disseminated: independently, transparently, and with full accountability.  The Board hired the investigative committee and gave it complete access to all University records and employees, and waived attorney-client privilege.  I and the rest of the public read the report for the first time at the same time as the Board that commissioned it.  The lawyers probably see this as a foolhardy act, a self-inflicted wound that exposes the university to substantial liability.  So be it; this is what accountability looks like.

None of this ameliorates the damage done, but for me it is evidence that I am not currently a member of a corrupt organization.  This community is eager to excise the rot, and the results so far are encouraging.

I am also disappointed at how Penn State students have been represented in the media.  The students here are a diverse bunch, but by and large they felt simultaneously horrified by the severity of the abuse, and defensive about their institution's reputation.  Yet they were demonized as a whole by the media as mindless Paterno worshippers, indifferent to the suffering of children.  There were lots of stories about misbehaving students outraged at Paterno's firing, but not so many about the "blue out" in support of child abuse victims at the next home game, or so many about the fact that Penn State undergrads raise millions for children's hospitals every year in the nation's largest student charity event (THON).    

There has been a lot of talk lately about sanctions.  Giving the football team the "death penalty" seems to make sense, but would do a lot of harm for little benefit beyond serving as a warning to others.  It's not clear on what basis the NCAA could do this, but it probably has the discretion to do whatever it wants, even without pointing to specific rules violations.  The new coach has largely replaced the old staff, and the new president has made it clear that the football-first culture is over in Old Main, and I believe him (he comes from the academic side of the administration).  It seems more appropriate to me to focus on civil and criminal liability.  

When it comes to the many victims, I recommend reading Slate's article on how Penn State should handle victim compensation.  It strikes me as the right, moral, and just approach here.   I hope Penn State follows this template.

When it comes to civil and criminal violations, certainly the living central three figures should be punished for their crimes.  The focus on the institution itself is now for Clery Act violations, both specifically for not reporting the Sandusky incidents they knew about and more generally for not training staff to comply with this federal law, as required.  The penalty for noncompliance is a civil fine of $27k for each infraction.  It's not clear how infractions would be counted here, but in the past "appropriate" punishment has been negotiated with prosecutors and a judge.

More disturbingly are reports that the DOE could cut off federal financial aid to Penn State students, or, according to some reports, "all federal funding," which would basically shutter the school.  A lot of our support comes from overhead on federal grants to do research;  without this we lose a huge part of our budget and a large fraction of our workforce.  The above link also suggests that the DOE could withhold the school's accreditation, meaning we stop being a school.   

But I can't find any reference in the Clery act to such sanctions; perhaps there is language somewhere that the DOE can shut off future funding for past violation of any federal rules, but it seems to me that as long as we come into compliance with federal rules, we will be eligible for federal funding, period.  If anyone knows the basis of the above speculation, please let me know.  

I dearly hope that the University follows the recommendations of the Freeh report.  Or perhaps I should write: I expect my university to follow these recommendations because they are the right thing to do.  

The Freeh report shows how Penn State culture was responsible for aggravating the scope of the crimes.  I am reproducing here the section on the necessary changes to Penn State culture (pp. 129-130), because I endorse it.  I especially appreciate the emphasis given to having greater transparency, something I have been pushing for since I arrived:

The University is a major employer, landholder and investor in State College, and its administrators, staff, faculty and many of its Board members have strong ties to the local community. Certain aspects of the community culture are laudable, such as its collegiality, high standards of educational excellence and research, and respect for the environment. However, there is an over‐emphasis on “The Penn State Way” as an approach to decision‐making, a resistance to seeking outside perspectives, and an excessive focus on athletics that can, if not recognized, negatively impact the University’s reputation as a progressive institution.

University administration and the Board should consider taking the following actions to create a values‐ and ethics‐centered community where everyone is engaged in placing the needs of children above the needs of adults; and to create an environment where everyone who sees or suspects child abuse will feel empowered to report the abuse.
1.1 Organize a Penn State‐led effort to vigorously examine and understand the Penn State culture in order to: 1) reinforce the commitment of all University members to protect children; 2) create a stronger sense of accountability among the University’s leadership; 3) establish values and ethics‐based decision making and adherence to the Penn State Principles as the standard for all University faculty, staff and students; 4) promote an environment of increased transparency into the management of the University; and 5) ensure a sustained integration of the Intercollegiate Athletics program into the broader Penn State community.
This effort should include the participation of representatives from the Special Faculty Committee on University Governance; Penn State’s Coalition on Intercollegiate Athletics; Penn State’s Rock Ethics Institute; students, alumni, faculty and staff; as well as representatives from peer institutions with experience in reviewing and improving institutional culture in academic settings.
1.2 Appoint a University Ethics Officer to provide advice and counsel to the President and the Board of Trustees on ethics issues and adherence to the Penn State Principles; develop and provide, in conjunction with the Rock Ethics Center, leadership and ethics training modules for all areas of the University; and coordinate ethics initiatives with the University’s Chief Compliance Officer.* (See also Recommendation 4.0)
      • 1.2.1 Establish an “Ethics Council” to assist the Ethics Officer in providing advice and counsel to the President and the Board on ethical issues and training.
      • 1.2.2 Finalize and approve the proposed modifications to the Institutional Conflict of Interest Policy; identify the senior administrative and faculty positions to which the policy should apply, and implement the policy throughout the University.
1.3 Conduct open and inclusive searches for new employees and provide professional training for employees who undertake new responsibilities.
1.4 Continue to benchmark the University’s practices and policies with other similarly situated institutions, focus on continuous improvement and make administrative, operational or personnel changes when warranted.
1.5 Communicate regularly with University students, faculty, staff, alumni and the community regarding significant University policies and issues through a variety of methods and media.
1.6 Emphasize and practice openness and transparency at all levels and within all areas of the University.

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