Saturday, November 12, 2011

Some thoughts on the Penn State sex scandal

For anyone who has been living under a rock for the past week, a former Penn State assistant football coach has been charged with sexually assaulting 8 pre-teen boys over a 15 year period. Numerous other administrators have been charged with failure to report the incident, and others, including legendary football head coach Joe Paterno, have been fired.

Needless to say, there has been a bit of internet chatter about this. A lot of it has focused on the football program and the similarities between this incident and those of the Catholic Church. I think this emphasis is mistaken, and potentially damaging.

My take is this. All universities cover up sexual assaults as a matter of course. The key feature of the Penn state case is that this particular incident is simply not containable. The age of the victims means that, unlike most university situations, consent is out of the question. The number of victims means it is not a freak incident, and the multiple third party eyewitnesses preclude it from simply being a he said she said. This is a once in a century campus sex crime.

The problem is that, in the 46 years that Paterno has been coaching Penn State, there have been scores of drunken field trip incidents, hundreds of late night library gropings, and thousands of off-campus drink-spiking rapes. And because those cases have not involved epic falls from grace, state-wide criminal probes, and shocking eyewitness descriptions of underage sex, they have been successfully covered up.

Because the fact of the matter is that universities are very good at sex crime cover-up. They form shadow justice systems designed to give victims whatever they require to stay quiet, they use freshman orientation to scare students into avoiding the cops, and they terrify overseas students by threatening to yank their visas and send them back to their country of origin before they can file charges.

Universities have no divisions of powers, or checks and balances, and they are driven to enhance and protect their institutional reputation at all costs. So their reaction to this case has a direct bearing on the health and safety of students worldwide. If they react by re-enforcing their cover-up mechanisms so that nothing smaller than a Paterno-scale epic will ever see the light of day, then campus life will be degraded. If they react by redirecting all their administrators and councilors and lawyers towards helping their victims instead of covering the institution’s image, then everyone who sets foot on a campus will be better off.

I am not optimistic.


Chris Phoenix said...

I agree that it would be great if universities would realize that they've been acting wrongly, and need to start actually dealing appropriately with sex crimes as a matter of course, rather than managing media only for the crimes they can't keep out of the media.

No division of powers, no checks and balances: it boils down to no accountability.

No accountability, and strong concern for reputation... I think this is pretty similar to the Catholic church.

It took me a while to realize what you meant: that the focus on the football program was damaging. As though the non-accountable reputation-protecting was only in the football program. As though universities as a whole were blameless.

Comparing universities as a whole to the Catholic church might be pretty much on-target.

Giles said...

I concur. think it's important to keep in mind the dynamic between the administration and the athletic "franchise". In this case, it appears the latter runs the show. This seems quite different than in the church, where higher clergy members made horrible decisions about how to protect "The Church". Tenure as originally conceived as way to protect faculty from capricious and political administrators. Perhaps the administrators in large schools like this need a similar type of institution to protect them from football coaches who are paid more than the university president and have cozy relationships with large donors and the board. In any case, the whole arrangment of running a quasi professional sport team within a state university is a recipe for disaster.

C W Magee said...

There is probably more to add on the Paterno angle, but not while the kids are running rampant.

Also, I give it a week before some climate change denialist tries to pin the whole affair on Penn State's Earth System Science Center director, professor Michael Mann.