November 11, 2011

The sickness at Penn State

Everyone seems to be trying to explain or understand what happened at Penn State. Sure, there is the unbelievable evil of Jerry Sandusky raping young boys over (at least) a 20 year period. I would never minimize that, but we have had pedophiles before, and will (unfortunately) again.

The question that haunts me is how he could continue to do this behavior after discovery. How do good people, in other words, allow this evil to occur? Nicole Rodgers suggests that it is a product of the good old boys club, and I think there is much to that.

But I also wonder if this is not about paternalism and deference gone awry. The more I read about PSU, the more I see that Joe Paterno had a pretty unique situation there--one he had, in large part, created. Successful coaches are powerful elsewhere, but Paterno seemed to have cultivated even more power on the campus--and largely through means that we would all celebrate. Many credit him with transforming Penn State's academic prowess from an ag school into a intellectual powerhouse. One reporter suggested that Paterno had enough power to remove a university president.

In fact, what I read reminds me of a mob boss (bear with me), though with a key difference. Actually two key differences, because I have yet to actually read of Paterno abusing people. On the contrary, the stories of his leadership (prior to this scandal) are legendary.

What I mean by mob boss is that he had created the environment where everyone on campus sought his approval. (One key difference is that I have also yet to read of real credible efforts to overthrow Paterno. Everyone there seemed to both admire the man, and recognize that his name was synonymous with the brand. Some other coach, in other words, could not replace him.)

That need for approval, or intense deference, was built on the understanding that Joe Pa would take care of them. It is that context, I think that might (might) explain the grad assistant's response. He witnessed Sandusky raping a child, and instead of interceding himself or calling the cops, he spoke with his father and only the next day told Joe Paterno. It is conceivable that Mike McQueary saw the situation in the context of not wanting to disappoint Paterno. (Not an excuse, mind you, but possibly how he saw the situation). He might have thought (and I suspect if any of this is true, this is in the subconscious) that going after Sandusky could possibly alienate him with Paterno. So, he deliberates and then decides to tell the boss what he knows.

Paterno, for his part, turned the information over to his AG. If I am correct, however, instead of giving it to his boss (perhaps on paper), Paterno was delegating to a subordinate, who could also fear upsetting the boss. The message might have been clearly unspoken--take care of this, but don't upset the program (and "program"="Joe Paterno").

I am speculating on most of this, but have observed this deferential behavior in myself in dealing with perceived betters, and observed it often when working in an organization. And I am not suggesting that Paterno is malevolent. I am suggesting that the unintended consequence of the "cult of the personality" of Paterno created a very unhealthy organization. And I would suggest that this disfunction occurs in many, many organization. Most, however, don't have these stakes.

I would like to know more about how things operated in Penn State when the stakes were lower. Did assistants and grad assistants do the equivalent of "whistle-blowing" on other problems? How did Joe Pa deal with people who screwed up? Where there people who were "untouchable?"

None of this excuses any of them for not picking up the phone and calling the cops. But a possible way of examining how people operate in this kind of organizational structure.


Jay said...

Could you provide a source for the following statement:

"Many credit him with transforming Penn State's academic prowess from an ag school into a intellectual powerhouse."

Paterno is well-known for the academic accomplishments of the athletes he brought to Penn State, and he has made numerous donations to the university which have contributed to it's growth, I suppose. But I was not aware that he was credited with transforming the academic status of the university as a whole. Can you tell me where or from whom you got this impression?

In the interest of full disclosure: I hold two degrees from PSU (B.S. in 1990 and Ph.D. in 1997), but I am not a football fan. I never really bought into the whole cult thing during my time there, but not being a fan of the sport I admit my perspective might not representative of many others on campus.

Streak said...

Jay, I will readily concede that that line really came from some reporters talking about Paterno's rise to power from the 60s forward. That part may be absolutely false, but that is the impression I got from the reporting.

In what area is your Phd?

Alison said...

I have been trying (unsuccessfully) to find out more information on Joe Paterno's tenure as athletic director. A few articles have mentioned that he was acting as both football coach and athletic director in 1980, and was responsible for hiring Rene Portland as the women's basketball coach (another Penn State scandal). While it's more common now to see former football coaches act as athletic directors when they're done coaching, I can't imagine the power one would have doing both at the same time.

Jay said...

Streak: Thanks for the clarification. The statement sounded pretty hyperbolic to me, so I was curious to know if you had a specific source for it. My personal sense is that the multiple billions in R&D funds the university was awarded had a more direct impact on its academic standing than the few millions that the Paternos contributed to academic development in the same time period. This is not to suggest that their contributions, both monetary and non-monetary, were insignificant, nor that the cult of JoePa did not have some bearing on, for instance, Penn State enrollment statistics over the years. But one can easily go overboard with these sorts of statements, and in doing so do something of a disservice to the those who really did help shape the transformation of the school.

My Ph.D. is in Meteorology.

Monk-in-Training said...

I want to be very clear about something here.

That "grad student" was Mike McQueary, who had been a Penn State starting Quarterback. He was a graduate assistant coach and 28 years old, having recently tried out for the NFL. He was about at his peak of physical strength, an all American Male.

He saw a 58 year old man raping a 10 year old child anally.

Remember, he came to investigate because he heard "rhythmic slapping sounds" that sounded like "sexual activity" in the locker room. The child was naked, the man was naked, and the child was up against a wall.

This strong all American male turned away and LEFT THE SCENE, then called his father to figure out what to do.

He had a choice (that kid didn't). The rest of his life will be colored by what he didn't do.

You see a child being raped you STEP IN AND STOP IT, then you call the police as soon as possible. This shouldn't be something an adult has to ponder over.

Lord, have mercy.

Streak said...

Jay, I think you might be reading me too literally. Obviously the science programs were built on research grants and massive amounts of funding, but the suggestion from what I read was that Joe was part of the group pushing for Penn State to move out of its ag school mission back in the 60s. That may be wrong, and it may be inflated. But that was what I heard. It doesn't really address the point of this post, but I certainly didn't mean to confuse that part of the issue.

Monk, I agree, to a point. I think that is part of what we are all trying to understand. Jon Ritchie (former NFL and Stanford fullback--I think) talked about that and noted that it wouldn't be seeing any 58 year old man raping a child, but seeing someone you deeply admired raping a 10 year old child. Not excusing his inaction, mind you, but noting that the shock to the system that these men keep repeating suggests that what he saw may have been more than his brain could compute. Maybe not. And none of that excuses not doing more, I agree.

Jay said...

Streak: I may be taking you too literally. And I certainly did not mean to take the conversation away from your point. I was trying to address the extent to which Paterno's power at Penn State extended into the academic realm. And I guess I really do question the extent of his impact on academics at Penn State beyond student athletes (which are, of course, a very small percentage of the students at any large university). The Paternos work with the library is laudable, and they certainly contributed substantially to other purely academic enterprises over the years. But claims that he transformed the university as a whole from an academic perspective strike me as being over the top.

That said...

I tried to search for information this before I started this conversation and failed to find anything (hence my request for a source). However I just searched again and found some copy associated with The Lion in Autumn: A Season with Joe Paterno and Penn State Football by Frank Fitzpatrick that makes the same claim. So that book might be the ultimate source for this claim. I will have to check it out some time, to see if I agree with the assertion.

leighton said...

I agree with both Monk and Streak. Seeing anyone molest a child is going to be shocking, regardless of who you happen to see doing it - it is so far outside our everyday experience that the right action may not be obvious at the time. When I encountered my first medical emergency, I had been certified for CPR and first aid for four years; even so, when a young woman in the middle of an overdose fell against the wall, slumped to the floor and started convulsing, I stood there like an idiot with my mouth hanging open for around six minutes until paramedics asked me to move out of the way so they could get their stretcher through. Human minds often won't respond well even to situations they have explicitly prepared for; if humans had a designer, I would call this a horrible and short-sighted design flaw.

That said, John Scalzi points out the moral degeneracy of every other adult in that situation, not just the man who happened to see Sandusky raping the child. Every other person who knew about Sandusky's behavior was not subject to the shock factor and should have found it easy to take appropriate action. The fact that they didn't, Scalzi argues, means that they valued their (illusion of) community more than the welfare of a human child. He references Ursula LeGuin's (very) short story Those Who Walk Away From Omelas, which explores the theme of people who will not compromise the welfare of innocents just for the sake of communal happiness. Apparently not many people will take this kind of stand, and through the miracle of neuroplasticity, the enablers of child rape still are able to consider themselves basically good and moral people.

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