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Monday, November 14, 2011

As goes Penn State, so goes the nation

The scandal at Penn. State, which alleges that a former assistant football coach sexually abused young boys on the campus, has had the effect of exposing something that has happened to the nation at large.  It also has demonstrated to the public a reality about the kind of thinking that rules higher education.  

Much of the press coverage has taken the form of accusations and speculations against the Penn. State administration, and the public has responded in lynch mob fashion.  The charges against Jerry Sandusky are for horrendous acts, to be sure, but the public response has been to make speculations about who knew what and then to demand action on the basis of the speculations, not on facts that an investigation should probe.  Consequently, legendary football coach Joe Paterno and the University's president were summarily fired, in an action by the board of trustees that reveals how boards of regents and trustees operate.  

The Washington Post Ombudsman has written that the coverage of his newspaper on the matter was left to opinion columnists, not to on-the-ground reporters who would be going after the facts. Under the pretense of indignation and outrage at the plight of what is alleged to happen to children, the columnists and the commenting public have furiously demanded vengeance on the coaches, the college administration, and anyone else who can be associated with the charges.   One columnist even castigated Jerry Sandusky's wife.  Not one of them proposed any positive actions to be taken for the alleged victims.  

And only a few stories brought in the  complicating fact that Sandusky and his wife raised six adopted children, in addition to starting the Second Mile facility for young boys in need, through which Sandusky is alleged to have made contact with victims.    I don't know the significance of the facts of Sandusky's family and social life, but at this point, neither does anyone else.  There are many aspects of the situation for which a full assemblage of facts is needed, but the journalists and public have shown that they are not capable or willing to deal with complicating facts. Rather than insist upon and support a full investigation leading to a trial, they are insisting on vengeance against anyone in power and authority that they can think of.  It's the lynch mob mentality at work.

I think of a scene from the movie "Powwow Highway," which has some sharply penetrating moments in it.  In one the protagonist, Buddy Red Bow, gets into a scrape at powwow at Pine Ridge and is saved by the intervention of a fellow Viet Nam veteran.  The veteran, played by Graham Greene, a native American actor who has done some brilliant work, is highly decorated for his valor in combat, but is afflicted with an incapacitating stutter. He cannot articulate what he wants to say to Red Bow.  He finally gets out the phrase, "You got mean."  As one browses through all the commentary on the Penn State scandal, one cannot escape the fact that America got mean.  That meanness does nothing to create a rehabilitative circumstance for any possible victims.  It merely serves what has become the great American indulgence:  the need to feel superior  by condemning other people.  And when the condemned is a famous football coach and the president of a big university, people luxuriate in their feeling of superiority.  America got mean.  

I make no case for Joe Paterno or President Graham Spanier.  They were fired and may well deserve it.  But I do know the reason they got fired, and it has nothing to do with the lives involved in the scandal.  It has everything to do with the fact that they could be accused of allowing a scandal, and their sacrifice to public anger elevates the trustees to a position of superiority,  where they hope to evade their moral responsibility as the officials who set the policies and procedures and the lines of authority to be followed.

Universities are populated by very young adults who sometimes do unthinking foolish things.  And by professors who are sometimes overcome by professional rivalries, jealousy, or disappointment, and sometimes lechery.  They, too, do destructive and foolish things.   What drives universities is the quest for money,  much more than the quest for talented students.  The money comes from alumni and benefactors from the business world, and the first and most stringently followed rule is to never cause scandal.  And to never reveal scandal.  Those who expose a scandal are much more despised in the administrative mind than are those who  actually cause a scandal.  The first actions taken by governing boards are to cover the flabby asses by sacrificing some well-known figures.   That takes the attention away from the board as the people indulge a morass of speculations and accusations about the important figures.  The termination of Graham Spanier is a big sacrifice, because he brought $3 billion in philanthropic donations to Penn State.  

I know two former prize-winning reporters who now make their livings writing crime novels.  Both have made comments that the public does not understand what a grand jury indictment actually is.  The public assumes that a grand jury report is a final finding of guilt, not a finding of possible cause on which a suspect may be arrested and made the subject of a thorough investigation.  The two writers both commented that the grand jury report on Jerry Sandusky contains inconsistencies and improbabilities which need a thorough examination of evidence and analysis to clarify and strengthen the charges brought against him for trial.  The fact that he was released on $100,000 bond indicates how tenuous those charges are at this point.*** 

Children who are in fact abused are owed a thorough and honest investigation.  Responsible action in child abuse cases is compromised by the hysteria and speculative frenzy with which people respond to the charges.  On one hand there are cases like those brought against the McMartin Preschool in Los Angeles, which after the longest criminal trial in U.S. history resulted in acquittal and dismissal of charges, and in Jordan, Minnesota, where testimony from children was found to be coached and did not stand up under cross examination.  On the other hand are cases involving U.S. Army day care centers at the Presidio in San Francisco and West Point in Maryland, where physical and forensic evidence was amassed from children, but was weakened by upper echelon  dismissals and inadequate preparation for trial.

Child abuse is too serious and has too many deleterious implications for those on whom it is inflicted to be examined by those possessed by hysteria and twisted agendas.  It isn't just children who are endangered; it is the possibility of any real justice for anyone. 

***Another complicating update:  The judge who released Sandusky on bail is a volunteer for the Second Mile organization.

And, David Brooks makes a shrewd assessment.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States