Friday, November 11, 2011

Penn State Link Farm

(NB: If catching up on the Penn State scandal is part of your weekend plans, WaPo has a handy tick-tock story in today's paper that summarizes events since the release of the grand jury's indictments last Friday afternoon. The grand jury's report is here, but it is not for the faint of heart. Trigger warning for graphic details of child sexual abuse and men in positions of authority behaving badly.)

What can a humble dog blog say that hasn't already been said about the sordid news out of Penn State University this week about an alleged sexual predator protected and enabled for years by an athletics department and a university administration in thrall to a legendary coach and the economic power of big-time football? What do we see when we gaze at the seal of the neighboring school a few hours to the north and take American culture's latest Rorschach test?

Mostly, we see what others have seen:

Disturbing evidence that universities do a terrible job of handling sexual violence and harassment by responding to them as private, internal matters, as Tenured Radical points out in her excellent post on the scandal. Lesboprof also focuses on the administration's failure to notify police of what was obviously a criminal matter in a post that every college administrator on earth ought to read. Historiann weighs in briefly but generates a long and lively discussion thread full of thoughtful comments and good links in response to her point that the administrative failure in this case was gendered male, as all of the coaches, directors, university lawyers, and presidents whose actions protected the alleged predator rather than his young victims were men. Jennifer Doyle points out that laws that require universities to investigate and act upon allegations of sexual abuse or harassment have done little to change "the culture of silence" that serves to shame victims and enable perpetrators on campus.

Possible evidence, particularly in the pro-Paterno riots that occurred on the Penn State campus Wednesday night, of uniquely American forms of idiocy having to do with sports, idol worship, and other vulgar things. For that perspective, see Eric Wilbur, Jon Stewart, and Margaret Soltan, who focuses not on the riots but on the "stupidity" that overtakes a campus dominated by football. Of course, QTU is a school where "rioting" is as commonplace as plagiarism, so the Moms are a little less horrified by this particular behavior than others are. Gather a bunch of kids stirred up about something, bring in a few cops decked out in their Darth Vader costumes, get a couple of cameras rolling, and -- presto! -- you've got a riot on your hands. Still, we doubled over laughing at Andy Borowitz's somber announcement that the board of trustees at Penn State had responded to the rioting by replacing the entire 40,000-member student body with an interim student body: “After careful consideration, we decided we had to make a change,” said trustee Harley Manvers. “Hopefully, these interim students won’t be such jackasses.”

Y'all know we are fans of college sports here in Roxie's World. (Indeed, the Moms are washing tee-shirts and polishing up the pom-poms in preparation for the season's first trip to the Comcastle tomorrow, where they'll see if their beloved [and 11th-ranked!] Lady Terps can avenge last year's NCAA Tournament loss to Georgetown.) Nonetheless, we've grown increasingly concerned in recent years by the sense that the athletics sides of the campus in Division I schools are worlds unto themselves, operating by a different set of rules than the rest of us and not really accountable to anyone. To us, one of the most telling details in the Penn State saga is that President Graham Spanier and some members of the board had tried to get Joe Paterno to retire at the end of the 2004 season, and he refused. Joe Pa maintained a similarly arrogant "You are not the boss of me" attitude until the bitter end, as he announced Wednesday that he would retire at the end of this season and appeared to order the board of trustees not to spend "a single minute discussing my status." That seems to have been the last straw for the board, which announced his firing late that night.

Penn State's difficulty breaking up with Paterno reminded Moose of the Sturm und Drang that arose at her undergrad alma mater back in 2000 when the late Myles Brand, then president of Indiana University, fired the school's legendary basketball coach, Bob Knight. Sports Illustrated columnist Stewart Mandel noted that parallel in a post on the dangers of turning coaches into idols who answer to no one. Mandel argues that fans are partly to blame for what happened at Penn State, their worship encouraging Paterno's arrogance and his bosses' diffidence. Richard Vedder, in The Chronicle of Higher Education, considers possible solutions for the lack of accountability, including the radical yet intriguing idea that universities might "get out of the commercial intercollegiate business, perhaps by spinning off their athletic operations to separate for-profit companies (which could be sold to the public), largely erasing the fiction of the 'student athlete' that exists in the more commercial sports such as football and basketball."

We don't see big schools getting out of the sports business anytime soon, because, of course, the revenue and the brand buzz generated by athletics are desperately needed in the age of Excellence Without Money (™RW Enterprises, LLC). In the end, for us, the many facets of this tragedy -- sexual coercion, catastrophic failures in oversight, rioting fans -- come together in a phrase that kept running through Moose's mind as she contemplated the events of this sad week. That phrase might be taken as the unspoken motto of the neoliberal university: Live by the brand, die by the brand. Jerry Sandusky was protected by his close, nearly forty-year association with Joe Paterno, who was not just a legend but the public face and foundation of the Penn State brand. Tarnish the brand, and the whole shaky financial edifice might come tumbling down. Such thinking encourages the diffidence and denial that appears to have been rampant among administrators in State College, including, it pains us to say, Graham Spanier, who has been one of the good guys of American higher ed for many years. We are sorry to see his tenure as president end on such a negative note.

Live by the brand, die by the brand: Bloomberg is reporting that Moody's Investors Service will look into downgrading Penn State's revenue-bond rating in view of the likelihood of "lawsuits, weaker student demand, decreased philanthropic support, changes in its relationship with the state, and management moves" in the wake of the scandal. Sometimes, it would appear, the most strenuous efforts to avoid reputational and financial risk end up producing precisely what they intended to avoid. That's worth keeping in mind, as we all seek to learn "the lessons of Penn State."

1 comment:

  1. And then there will be even more excellence without money...the estimated $100 million lawsuit payouts will come from the taxpayers, the legislature will cut funding to make it up, the sports will go on and the library will be replaced by a few downloadable books and the full-time faculty with part-timers, and the other workers will have their jobs outsourced and on and on it will go....


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