Friday, July 13, 2012

Who pruned the Prunus?

We're writing as members of the Penn State community, which as about everyone knows by now has been shaken by a scandal because of a prominent member of our athletic department who turned out to be a serial child molester.

Now, a specially commissioned report on what happened, chaired by Louis Freeh, the FBI's former Director, has been released.  There have been prior leaks,  plus other available testimony, about how reports of sightings of the molester at work were, or weren't, properly dealt with.

Penn State as a whole has been taking the rap for this, as if one rogue in the way-beyond-control Athletic Department represented how the rest of us behave.  In relation to child molestation, abuses by one isolated individual in our isolated Athletic Department facilities (far on the edge of campus) aside, the rest of the faculty are truly innocent.

But the University as a whole?  That's a different story!

The fall of the poor cherry tree (genus Prunus)
George Washington, our country's founding idol, is said to have been truly an honest person. As a child, he has been said to have been so honest that when his father confronted him about a cherry tree that had been chopped down on their property, little Georgie said "I cannot tell a lie, father, you know I cannot tell a lie! I did cut it with my little hatchet.''  We don't know if he was taken to the woodshed by his father, in reward for his valiant confession.

This is relevant because it reflects something about our society that isn't as savory as our first President's forthcoming nature.  As the Freeh report loomed, everybody who could be, should be or anticipated being named in the report has been manoevering the spin-apparatus to make sure nobody thinks they knew anything or failed to act properly.  Our former President and his lawyers are making sure we all know he didn't know any more than a newborn babe, despite clear record, even before the report was released, that something of some sort was known to him.

Other former administrators, indicted for perjury, are making sure we all know that they would never, ever look the other way at serious offenses like child abuse.  And how could you even think that the trustees and university lawyers knew anything!

The university has been offering pre-emptively consoling meetings with victims and the solace of monetary compensation for stresses they may have experienced because somebody (else) may have done something they shouldn't (because the University wouldn't tolerate such antics!).

We're even seen pre-emptive imaging-preserving manoevering by the deceased.  Joe Paterno can't speak for himself, but his family are making moves and publicity bleats to ensure us that he would never have looked the other way.  How his family would know about something they didn't witness is not clear, unless they've been at some unpublicized seances.

The Freeh report, as neutral before-hand as one can ask, we think, sees it differently:  There was a cherry tree here,  it did get chopped down, and the report identifies who did it but tried to wriggle out of responsibility.

Like one, like all: see no evil, do no evil
It's not just here at this particular university.  It's become the American way:  nobody seems to be guilty of anything, ever.  From disingenuous spinning, and in this case pre-spin-spinning, including pervasive advertising and image management, from individual to organization, this is a nation of angels!

We occasionally hear a myth that confession is good for the soul.  Not many, say like the person we'll not name in this image (whom some might assume has a soul), are able to say even if reluctantly as this guy seems perhaps to be thinking about saying,  "Well, OK, I must confess..."

If confession is good for the soul, our good souls apparently don't feel they need it.

Sadly, the denouement may not leave everyone unbesmirched.  The administrators being fingered have generally lived highly honorable and decent lives, as officials, President, and Coach.  Their achievements need to be recognized as we keep all of this in balance.  We all make mistakes (though we'll rarely admit it!).

But the underlying problem, that of excessive attention to image and 'brand, over substance, is more serious and was pervasive around here--we have been noting it for years, unrelated to anything to do with the child-abuse case.

While it's too bad to be administered by so obsessively risk-averse an attitude, that it won't make reforms, it's not unique to Penn State. There is, for example, a well-documented national malaise in higher education that nobody dares address directly, essentially because to do anything about it we'd all have to change our ways, and tuition income could be jeopardized.  Many of a school's prominent faculty are not teaching as much as students paying tuition or their parents may have expected from the recruiting brochures they get.  Our stress on research is arguably far out of proportion given its actual contribution to our overall responsibility to the public we serve.  We are looking the other way at a different kind of abuse, student-abuse: we are tacitly pressured to entertain, and are not providing rigorous enough education nor one that--in the market mentality we think makes us so smart and insightful about how to do things--is tied to the product we are 'selling'.  We admit students many of whom are not prepared for, able, or interested in high-level academic learning (and the work that is required by them--and us, to bring it off).  We boast that bowl wins--sports--increase admission applications as if that's a good reason to apply here (but it's good for business!).  We talk about 'student-athletes' (a legalism used strictly to avoid problems with how we exploit them), but not about 'student-customers'.

The lowered academic standards is a national problem; administrators from department Heads to Deans to the main office, know the situation very well, yet no serious action seems to be taking place.  We talk the 'academics' talk but we don't walk the walk.  Institutions daren't jeopardize their image,  brand,  athletic department income, nor lose faculty to other institutions if we insisted on fulfilling a more responsive mission.

It's worse and more general than just that, too.  The finger of responsibility, in our society at large, never points to many who deserve it and are at the core of our disingenuousness: the advertising industry, scandal and hype-hungry media, PR firms, lawyers, and politicians who will sell whatever they can gain by selling.  We tolerate this, so we're all in it together.

This is relevant because SanduskyGate was just one manifestation of the consequences of this attitude that happened to escape into the public eye.  Indeed, even now it seems likely, but unfortunate, that we'll encyst SanduskyGate as if it were an isolated problem, to protect the rest of the university--and to avoid having to address the deeper problem of which this was but a sorry instance.   The problem of risk aversion in the face of real problems was something many of us here have been pointing out over the years of our recent administration's tenure. 

This protective, restricted-acknowledgment attitude is going to be reinforced as trials and more expensive PR brand control seem inevitable.  We'll all be making sure that this was done by somebody else, and that you realize we have halos and gossamer wings.  Just like George Washington.

The only thing is, the story of Georgie's confession isn't true.


edward hessler said...

Thank you for these thoughtful comments on Penn State and also for casting the football program scandel in a broader framework. The phrase you use "we're all in it together" strikes home and we seem to be all implicated in some respects.

Ken Weiss said...

I can't say much more on a public forum. But this scandal was in the sense I wrote about above (and, indeed, last November or December when this story broke), is vintage Penn State, and sadly also vintage Spanier. He was a very fine money raiser, building builder, and visible presence for the University, very good for image and brand as the Trustees clearly recognized.

But not only did that image-focus apparently lead to SanduskyGate, it also led us systematically to look the other way from the deep problems we, and other universities, and the country, face when it comes to higher education.

Now, we'll be overwhelmed will fallout from this problem, and Rod Erickson, a very good and decent man, won't have the chance to take on the real issues.

More serious is the near certainty that a real _academic_ reformer, which is what we need, would not be hired by the Trustees in 2 years when Rod is to retire. They'll want a person to pick up the pieces, not someone crusading for a broader, more challenging cause.

Again, I stress that the academic reform issues are very well documented and nationwide (even, I think, in the 'elite' institutions).