If you’re shocked by the scandalous news and accusations coming out of Penn State, you’re like almost everyone in the nation. If you’re shocked at how the reports of alleged misconduct were handled by the university, you must be living a sheltered life.
The tendency to “protect the institution” is typical of many organizations large and small. Sadly, as we have seen in this situation, the obligation to do the right thing is often snowed under by the pressure to cover it up and keep it from public scrutiny.
This is a very widespread attitude in the worlds of business, education, the military and almost any other field you can name. To a remarkable extent, many folks would rather see an injustice perpetrated and the offender protected than read about any of it in the newspaper.
Of course, as any student of the Watergate scandal or Bill Clinton’s administration knows, it’s always worse when you try to cover it up. The financial and moral challenges to the Catholic Church posed by the apparent numerous cases of molestation of boys by priests is another example of the “circle the wagons” mentality.
In the Penn State instance, where a former assistant coach is accused of many offenses surrounding sexual contact with young boys, it’s representative of the somewhat casual attitude that has long existed toward sexual offenses against the less powerful.
Only in recent years has society in general and the criminal justice system in specific taken rape with the seriousness it deserves. Some blamed the victim, implying she somehow “brought it on herself” or “secretly enjoyed it.” This shallow perspective is fading, but slowly.
In the case of adult and juvenile offenses, a cavalier attitude used to pervade. I remember in the mid-1970s covering a meeting of the Westminster School District board where they chose to discipline a male teacher for “dating” a 13-year-old student at his intermediate school.
The penalty? Transferring him to another intermediate school.
Even when it’s not a matter of a possible crime, many people would rather live with a bad situation that admit to the mistake. In the early Eighties, when I was executive editor of West Orange Publishing (which included the late, lamented Orange County Evening News), the publisher wanted me to hire a new managing editor, which is the number two job in the newsroom.
I found someone who I thought would be a good choice; she had a good resume and interviewed well. But, as it turned out, she was a bad decision on my part. She didn’t get along well with people in the office and was out the door at 5 p.m. everyday. I suspect she was one of those folks whose best accomplishments were behind them and planned on skating the rest of the way.
This soon became evident, and after firing a few ineffectual warning shots across her bow, I decided she had to be let go. But the publisher (my boss) was horrified. “Do you know how this is going to make us look?” he asked.
Well, my reply was “It’s going to make us look like people who have the good sense to know when we’ve been wrong.” I finally carried the day, but not without considerable argument. I wanted a good staff. He wanted a good public image. Can’t always have both.
Circling back to the Penn State situation, this attitude is often endemic in education. There’s a personality theory which classifies people as being guardians, idealists, artisans and rationals. Most teachers, the theory goes, are idealists, but many administrators and coaches are “guardians.”
They see themselves as protecting an institution and its culture. Everyone else outside is “the other,” and a possible threat. Change, creativity and openness make them nervous.
As both a journalist and a college professor, I have encountered this “guardian” type lots of times. I can remember arriving at a high school campus dressed in a coat and tie, with a press pass clearly visible, walking on my way to “sign in” at the front office and being confronted angrily by a vice principal or “security aide” (this happened more than once) as if I was driving an armored personnel carrier over the curb and had begun lobbing white phosphorus grenades into the cafeteria.
“What are you doing here?” they snarl. Even with proof of my virtuous intentions, the best I could get was a reluctant grunt of “permission.” To these guardian types, the public school system did not belong to the public, but to THEM.
As an educator, when certain issues arise, I have had the occasion to remind my superiors of the true order of things. “I don’t work for you,” I say (as politely as I can manage). “I work for the citizens and taxpayers of this community. I have to do what is in their best interests, not what will keep egg off your face, or mine.”
If the folks at Penn State had remembered who they worked for – the public, not Joe Paterno or the glory of Nittany Lion football – this scandal (called the worst in college sports history) would have long since been over and everyone doubly warned to be on guard against predators who try to hide behind institutional facades.
In the final analysis, who you work for isn’t just the people who sign your check, it’s also your own conscience. If you can’t reconcile the two, you might find yourself in the same headline you tried so hard to avoid.