There Are Lessons from Penn State for All of Us: This Applies to You!
John N. Gardner
This past week has brought the public release of the investigation conducted by former FBI Director Louis Freeh, of the circumstances regarding the purported assaults on children by former Penn State employee Jerry Sandusky. And it has sent my head spinning. And this is really something given that I thought I had already heard everything. Afterall, I am no stranger to university life in the fast lane where there are powerful forces supporting athletic departments and where the institution has endured a number of athletic scandals. I know that had I not been a tenured, full professor at my university I would have been out on the street in retaliation for taking on the Athletic Department for abuses of my first-year students.
So here’s my take on what I have read:
- The University had reasonable suspicion as far back as 1998 to believe that an employee was sexually assaulting children on University property.
- University senior officers as high up as a famous football coach, the athletic director, a vice president, and a president, all had varying degrees of knowledge about the possibility of assaults on children.
- University officers were most concerned about unfavorable publicity that would damage the institution’s vaulted reputation of its football program and coach
- University officers would put anything behind protecting the reputation of that coach and football program
- University officers were so concerned about preventing negative publicity in the short run that they overlooked a smoking gun that would damage the reputation of the University for years, decades, to come
- University officers were extraordinarily influenced by the power of a coach
- Even when the house of cards was crumbling the football coach received a contract the likes of which no other university employee could even dream of
- University officers kept the governing board in the dark about an actual problem that threatened the University’s sacrosanct reputation
- Protecting the football reputation was more important than protecting children and the University’s academic reputation
So this whole sorry mess leaves me with some thoughts and questions, which I believe all of us who work directly with students, and who supervise those who work directly with students should be thinking about very seriously:
· What is our individual responsibility to protect students from any form of inappropriate contact or harassment?
· What do we know about such matters?
· When did we come to know about such matters?
· What have we done with what we know about such matters?
· There are some people in power who take advantage of students.
· They got to be able to do this because they are protected and because people like you and me look the other way.
· Any employee of any college or university is in a position of power to protect and advocate for students/ and—to take inappropriate advantage of students
· Any employee theoretically has more power than a student. Even adjuncts. All of us are in positions of trust and power.
I just can’t get it out of my head that all these powerful people took what they thought were appropriate steps to protect a university, not children, to protect that university’s reputation
So for what should a university be known?
What is it going to take in the contemporary US culture for a university to be best known for something other than football?
Who’s in charge here anyway? What is the most fundamental purpose of great American universities?
Is the Penn State debacle finally the last straw that will help us get our house in order?
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, while you wait for our country to sort out all these larger questions, what are you doing to protect your students?