A Culture of Evasion

Peter Wood

The dreadful scandal at Penn State reached another level on July 12, with the 250-page report of former FBI director Louis Freeh to the university’s board of trustees, culminating a seven-month independent investigation. The report makes clear the complicity of senior officials at the university in covering up convicted child molester and former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky’s sexual assaults on children. The officials include head football coach, the late Joe Paterno, university president Graham Spanier, athletic director Tim Curley, university vice president Gary Schultz, and university police chief Thomas Harmon, all of whom knew enough of the facts to act but who chose instead to turn a blind eye to Sandusky’s concurrent career as a child molester.

The officials chose to pursue a cover up, according to Freeh, because of their fear of bad publicity.

That probably says everything you need to know about the corruption that big-time sports brings to higher education and the lack of integrity among the men (and sometimes women) who oversee these enterprises. The story will take its own path from here.  Paterno is posthumously disgraced. According to the Times, Phil Knight, the CEO of Nike, is having Paterno’s name removed from a childcare center in Oregon, and the former football coach at Florida State has called for Paterno’s statue at Penn State to be taken down.

Paterno was a beloved figure whose die-hard supporters believed was treated unfairly by the university when the scandal broke. I expect we won’t be hearing much more of that. The other officials are of the sort that seldom register with the public at any emotional level: just highly paid university functionaries. They functioned in this case to protect the reputation of Joe and the football team, even if that meant sacrificing at least ten young boys to a sexual predator.

The public indignation over all this needs no help from me, and several of my colleagues have made good and useful contributions. Anne Neal at ACTA has issued a pertinent statement pointing out that Penn State’s board of trustees signally failed at its responsibility to “be active and informed stewards.” Richard Vedder has put the scandal into a broader moral context, and suggested that it can be used to reign in lawless college sports programs.

It is surely not too soon to think about some of the policy implications.

First, Penn State, like most universities, has an elaborate sexual harassment code, AD 4, and abundant materials, such as the Student Affairs Center for Women Students’ “Know the Facts—Rape and Sexual Assault” page, a sexual-harassment brochure. Needless to say, none of these helped the little boys on which Coach Sandusky preyed. More needful to say is that these official declarations made not the slightest difference in the choices that senior university officials made when they were informed of the facts and could have, if they wished, pursued a timely investigation.

That’s not to say the harassment code didn’t have some real punch. Back in 1992, not long before when Coach Jerry was spotted assaulting a boy in the university’s showers, an English professor, Nancy Stumhofer, at Penn State’s Schuykill campus, complained that a copy of Goya’s masterpiece, “Naked Maja” that had hung unmolested in a classroom for a decade “encouraged males to make remarks about body parts,” and succeeded in having it removed.

Campus sexual-harassment codes grow ever more draconian even as what passes for acceptable behavior behind the scenes grows worse and worse. A simple lesson: Morality can’t be replaced with legalism. The folks whose job it is to enforce the rules have since learned how to evade the inconvenient ones. Nor does heated rhetorical pronouncement replace a culture that values simple decency. Penn State has an abundance of legal codes and thundering denouncements of sexual misbehavior, none of which made the slightest difference.

The underlying culture that made this heedlessness possible among the senior officials extends to quite a few topics that have no direct connection to the Sandusky scandal. In 2010, Penn State’s Faculty Senate revised policy HR64, “Academic Freedom,” to delete passages that described the responsibility of professors not to introduce unrelated controversial material in the classroom, and to eliminate the bar to using “suppression” and “innuendo” against divergent opinions. It was a hooray-for-liberty-and-down-with-annoying-restrictions moment, quickly endorsed by President Spanier, who at that point knew a thing or two about the advantages of setting your own flexible rules for uncomfortable situations. (Note: Spanier’s memo of April 11, 2011 to the the Penn State University Faculty Senate says he accepts the revisions “in part.”  The changes he made, however, shown in the marked-up copy, are incidental.  Spanier restored a weaker form of the prohibition on introducing unrelated controversial material  in the classroom.  His version bars material that has “no relation to their the subject matter of instruction.” Emphasis added.)

Then there was the Michael Mann case, the well-known advocate of the theory of man-made global warming, accused in the wake of the Climategate memos in 2009 of scientific misconduct. Penn State appointed a university panel, headed by the vice president for research, Henry Foley, to investigate Mann. According to ABC News Foley’s committee asked:

whether Mann had 1) suppressed or falsified data; 2) tried to conceal or destroy e-mails or other information; 3) misused confidential information; or 4) did anything that “seriously deviated from accepted practices” in scholarly research.

The committee exonerated Mann on the first three and punted on the fourth. Make of this what you will, but a review by the university’s vice president for research, who oversees grant-funded projects, does not have exactly the same standing as an investigation carried out by the former director of the FBI. Penn State has a history of treading softly with its star players. Paterno wasn’t the only beneficiary.

President Spanier also had a formidable record of opposing public disclosure of salary information about public employees—his own, Paterno’s, and others.  In 2007, as one reporter put it, “Spanier spoke forcefully against the state-related universities being included under an expanded state open-records law.” Spanier and Paterno used various legal maneuvers to stymie an open-records lawsuit even after the reporter who filed it won a court ruling. Spanier, true to form, upheld the principle of transparency but not its application to the situation at hand:

Nobody would argue the point that the public has a right to know how public funds are spent,” he said. “But these proposals will fundamentally change the way we operate, the way our trustees govern.”

Rules aren’t made for breaking in Spanier’s philosophy; they are made for evasion.

Graham Spanier’s tenure as Penn State’s president (1995-2011) was a period in which the university added colleges and more or less held its own. But it was hardly a lustrous epoch in the university’s history even before the revelations of his tawdry behavior in the Sandusky case. Is he a primary culprit? No, that’s Sandusky, and Paterno a distant second.  Spanier, however, helped to create the context in which evasion of duty and moral subterfuge became a kind of perverse norm. It will take a long time for Penn State to recover. And we can only hope that similar situations are not hidden away on other university campuses where an ethic of see-no-evil-relax-and-enjoy-the-good-times continues to prevail.

This article originally appeared on the Chronicle of Higher Education's Innovations blog on July 13, 2012.

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