Saturday, June 3, 2017

The real reason Graham Spanier's going to jail

This post will seem to be a serious diversion from our usual topics, but in another sense it is actually of the same sort.  There's a lesson to be learned from Penn State's recent inglorious history, or perhaps a 'meta-lesson', and since we are at Penn State, it's perhaps an appropriate context for us.

Our former President, Graham Spanier, was just yesterday sentenced to some jail time for his conviction on charges related to negligent response to reports of Jerry Sandusky's child abuse. Spanier and two other high officials at Penn State were convicted of essentially turning their heads away from reports of abuse.  They have essentially acknowledged this, though Dr Spanier still seems to be wriggling, unconvinced that, despite the tragedy for many abused boys, he looked the other way when action could have been taken.  All the evidence we see in the news, at least, suggests that the administrators did in fact do that, as did rightfully legendary football coach Joe Paterno.

They all didn't want to know unpleasant things, or conveniently didn't see them.  This doesn't mean they were bad people who wanted little boys to be abused.  It means they didn't respond to some indirect information they received about possible abuse going on in a Penn State athletic facility.  In a sense this was the most convenient response, rather than be bothered by something that they, after all, didn't see directly and that would at best be a distraction from their busy lives.

But there is a far deeper part of the story, and it has to do with why this happened. Seeing that bigger picture is the only way to understand what has happened.  The reason has to do with the nature of our society generally and how it applies to universities.  Our former President is going to jail because he was part of a system that favors money, convenience, and appearance over ethics.

The Spin Society
As university president, Graham Spanier seemed to have an insatiable hunger for attention.  He was in front of a camera all the time and everywhere.  He was a very good spinner and fundraiser.  The University's coffers grew admirably during his administration.  He became prominent in many ways, none of them intellectual or very seriously about education.

Penn State grew in size, even though it's hard argue that bigger classes or athletic programs were about serious-level education.  Dr Spanier didn't impede good faculty hiring or strong research. Indeed, he approved of it and helped.  But his administration was not an intellectual one or a drive for higher educational quality or more rigor per se.  More research could be counted in terms of dollars flowing in and publications flowing out.  If it happened, or if he could help, that was terrific.

But Graham Spanier's downfall was because he was part of the Spin Society.  His presidency was focused on image, and image was based on money.  Uncomfortable facts were dealt with quietly, or brushed aside.  Social activism was ignored or given a patronizing pat on the head.  Anything that was good for image, was good for  Penn State.

Graham Spanier is going to jail because he was a cog in this wheel, a wheel that is the essence of contemporary American society.  In the Spin Society, competition for resources is the bottom line, more the operant word, and cardboard cutouts the easiest approach to take.  Boards of Trustees expect it (and may not tolerate Presidents who actually try to do something to shake the system itself).  Since Boards are responsible for the tenor of the university and the tenure of its leaders, maybe it is they who should be behind bars, not the agent whom they encouraged and rewarded for 15+ years.

If we see Spanier's sentence as a just reward for a negligent or miscreant, then we are misunderstanding and complicit in worse that is likely to come.  If we see this as a Penn State problem, then we are complicit in allowing the rest of the country to carry on business as has become usual.

A 1952 French movie called Nous Sommes Tous des Assassins, or We Are All Assassins, was the story of a murderer on death row who was being personally held responsible and punished, even though his acts were more deeply the result of the nature of society, for which we are all responsible.

We do not need an increaasingly spin-driven society, where essential dishonesty is at the core of how we operate. There surely are other, better ways to live.

And in a case like this one at Penn State, who is really the guilty party?

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