• September 2, 2014

Why I Resigned the Paterno Chair

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Reinventing Ourselves

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I don't need to explain why I resigned the Paterno Family Professorship in Literature at Pennsylvania State University, do I? I mean, really. It was the Paterno Family Professorship in Literature. That's all you need to know.

Except that's not all you need to know. And much of what you think you know is wrong.

Here's what everyone knows: The Jerry Sandusky serial-child-rape scandal involved "an unprecedented failure of institutional integrity leading to a culture in which a football program was held in higher esteem than the values of the institution, the values of the NCAA, the values of higher education, and most disturbingly the values of human decency." Those were the words of the NCAA's president, Mark Emmert, as he announced sweeping and severe sanctions against Penn State's football program.

And there is no question about who is to blame: "In order to avoid the consequences of bad publicity, the most powerful leaders at the university—Spanier, Schultz, Paterno and Curley—repeatedly concealed critical facts relating to Sandusky's child abuse." Those were the words of the Freeh report, commissioned by the Penn State Board of Trustees and submitted by former FBI Director Louis J. Freeh. In his news conference on July 12, Freeh insisted that the iconic coach, Joe Paterno, "was an integral part of this active decision to conceal."

I read the Freeh report the morning it was released and proceeded to ignore every news-media outlet's request to comment. A producer for National Public Radio's All Things Considered called my English-department office, my office at the Institute for the Arts and Humanities, my cellphone, and my home phone. For good measure, she e-mailed and tweeted me. That afternoon, I saw a cloud formation that pretty clearly seemed to be a smoke signal—"Professor Bérubé, this is NPR. Please call us RIGHT THIS SECOND." Radio, TV, newsmagazines, and newspapers called and wrote. But I had nothing to say that day, and I have had nothing to say since. Until now.

I knew the day the Freeh report was released that I would have to resign the Paterno chair, but I hesitated for almost six weeks. (I informed my dean on August 20.) I did so chiefly out of concern for the feelings of Sue Paterno, Joe's wife. I have always been very fond of her, as has my wife, Janet, and my son Jamie—and she will always have my respect and gratitude. I thought also of Joe's son Jay Paterno, a former quarterbacks coach at Penn State, whose wife, Kelley, was one of my students when I was a teaching assistant at the University of Virginia. Jay and Kelley and I have spoken often, I have been to their home twice for after-game events, and whenever we have run into one another in town, we have always greeted each other warmly.

Sue, Jay, and Kelley have always made me feel more than welcome at Penn State. When David Horowitz came to town and named me one of America's 100 Most Dangerous Professors, Sue wrote me a note of support. Long before that, she read Life As We Know It: A Father, a Family, and an Exceptional Child, my book about Jamie, who has Down syndrome. Despite the fact that the book's position on abortion is profoundly offensive to many conservative Roman Catholics (like Sue and Joe Paterno), Sue wrote me a long, lovely, detailed letter about how much she enjoyed reading it. I have kept that letter, and always will.

In 2010, when I wrote my annual letter to the Paternos, I informed them of my contribution to a conference called "Cognitive Disability as a Challenge to Moral Philosophy"; Sue called me a few days later, asking for a copy of the essay. My goodness, I thought, it's already amazing that the Paterno family created an endowed chair in the English department. But asking to read an article on Martha Nussbaum and John Rawls? Surely Sue Paterno is one of a kind. (And she continues to support the College of the Liberal Arts and to contribute to English-department events.)

More important, the Paterno family has done nothing wrong. Remember that the next time someone casts aspersions on the name "Paterno." Yes, they are contesting the Freeh report, the NCAA sanctions, and the destruction of Joe Paterno's legacy. From the outside, from where you sit, it doesn't look good. But just imagine their shock and grief. Last year their father/husband was an idol, a symbol of integrity in the deeply corrupt and smarmy enterprise of big-time college sports, author of the "Grand Experiment" that sought to bring success with honor to dear old State. He was Saint Joe, a throwback to an era when football players actually took real classes and graduated along with the rest of their cohort. (Indeed, the graduation rate for Penn State's African-American players has matched that of its white players; few football programs can say as much.) Suddenly he is associated with—and, by some accounts, the mastermind behind—the cover-up of the most horrible scandal in the history of American collegiate athletics.

Who can say what form the Paternos' grief should take? Grief is perhaps the least manageable of human emotions. And if the family members were grieving, as I knew they were, should I add insult to injury by telling them I could no longer hold the chair that bears their name?

Of course, that's precisely what I had to do. So once I received word from the College of the Liberal Arts that my resignation of the chair was official, I wrote to Sue to tell her of my decision. I assure you it was not an easy letter to write.

Over the past year, many people have remarked that Penn State is living inside a bubble. In State College, in Centre County, perhaps in a 50-mile radius around Beaver Stadium, you can still see hundreds of tributes to JoePa—on T-shirts, on taxis—and, even more common, in expressions of anger and exasperation at the "National Communist Athletic Association" and "the Freeh Stooges." It is striking.

Some visitors find such a reaction appalling—with good reason. Surprisingly few people here realize how bad it looks to contest the report our own trustees commissioned, flawed though it be; surprisingly few people here realize how it looks to wear T-shirts that construe Penn State as the victim in all this, as if they are willing to become complicit with the whole mess, active participants in the culture that produced this scandal. One popular T-shirt reads "We Are ... PISSED OFF." Well, folks, the world has taken note of your pissed-offedness. And to much of that world, you might as well be wearing shirts that say, "Never mind what Sandusky did with those kids—we're REALLY upset at what's happened to US."

People who rarely leave Centre County may not realize just how renowned its most visible institution has become. In the past year, I have traveled to Iowa and Oklahoma, Chicago and Boulder, Nashville and Knoxville, Australia and England. Everywhere, people have heard of Penn State, and what they have heard lately is not very good. When I say where I am from, I am greeted with sighs, shaking heads, and condolences. In Sydney, watching coverage of the Sandusky trial on the Australian news, I imagined fleeing to Antarctica, only to be greeted by legions of penguins saying, "Good Lord, do you believe this Penn State mess?"

And yet we who live inside the bubble know a few things you don't know. We know there is good reason to be puzzled at Freeh's conclusion that Joe Paterno "closely" followed the 1998 police investigation into an allegation that Jerry Sandusky had engaged in inappropriate conduct with a boy in the showers at the university's athletic facility. The Freeh report itself produces only two e-mails from Tim Curley, the athletics director who is now on leave, to support that argument. One indicates that Curley had "touched base" with Paterno, and the other asks for an update because "Coach is anxious to know where it stands." The funny thing is, people didn't usually refer to Paterno as "Coach"; they called him Joe. Of course, it's possible that Curley was speaking in code precisely to protect Paterno; but it's also possible that the second e-mail refers not to Paterno but to Coach Sandusky himself. We really don't know.

But we do know that when it comes to the 1998 investigation, Freeh's claim rests on a curiously thin reed. And though that doesn't absolve Paterno for his inaction after Mike McQueary, a former graduate assistant, reported seeing Sandusky in the showers with a boy in 2001, it does hold out the possibility that he was not lying to the grand jury in 2011 when he said he didn't recall the 1998 investigation. (By contrast, it does not seem plausible that Curley and Gary Schultz, now a former vice president of the university, would not have remembered the 1998 investigation, as they claimed in 2011. But we will have to wait for their day in court, scheduled for next year.)

And we know that while the body of the report contains crucial details about the real scandal of the 1998 investigation, no one has cared to focus on those details. They may not have been part of Freeh's commission, but they raise important questions about why the investigation was shut down, and they warrant attention. They tell a sorry story about local law enforcement and child services—but they don't tell the full story. Alycia Chambers, a psychologist who was contacted by the mother of one of the boys Sandusky was "grooming," filed a report with Detective Ron Schreffler of the university police department and with the Pennsylvania child-abuse line, affirming that Sandusky fit the profile of a pedophile. Schreffler, in turn, reported to a caseworker at Centre County's Office of Children and Youth Services, but the Freeh report does not indicate whether he passed along Chambers's report.

The mind boggles at how much human misery, first and foremost that of Sandusky's subsequent victims, could have been prevented if anyone had had the sense to listen to Chambers and act accordingly. According to Freeh, because the youth-services agency had conflicts over contracts with the Second Mile, the charity Sandusky founded, the investigation was handed over to Pennsylvania's Department of Public Welfare, which engaged its own psychologist, who proceeded to tell everyone that there was no cause for alarm: Sandusky wasn't grooming kids for abuse, and the psychologist had never heard of a 52-year-old man "becoming a pedophile."

How did this debacle happen? Was someone in the know protecting Second Mile, which Sandusky used to recruit his victims? Did the second psychologist just tell the public-welfare folks what they wanted to hear? Did everyone involved sigh with relief when the district attorney closed the investigation?

We don't know. What we do know is that everyone who had any knowledge of the 1998 investigation should have rung every available alarm, and gone to every appropriate authority, after McQueary reported what he saw in 2001. No one in the Penn State leadership did so, and that—not their responses three years earlier, when the district attorney sounded the all-clear—is what is unforgivable.

So there are two institutional failures here. The first, in 1998, is primarily a failure of our police and child-protection authorities. The second, in 2001, is primarily a failure of university governance. In between the first and the second, we now know that a couple of Penn State janitors, too, were aware of Sandusky's criminal escapades, but told themselves they would lose their jobs if they reported what they saw. The cover-up in 2001 strongly suggests that their fear of a culture of secrecy at Penn State was well founded.

And that is damning enough—to the reputations of the men who never reported Sandusky to the police, and to the reputation of the university that once prided itself on its athletics integrity. That alone is enough to compel me to resign the chair I had once been so honored to hold.

Ah, but wasn't I badly mistaken to think that anything associated with college football could be a matter of honor? Wasn't my chair tainted from the start, an artifact of greed and corruption, as if I were the Lehman Brothers Professor of Literature? Wasn't I a fool not to realize that Joe Paterno was in fact a preening hypocrite, styling himself as a force for integrity and rectitude while secretly presiding over what would become a scandal?

It may be too late to try to scale back the hysteria; it may not even be possible to call it by its proper name, "hysteria." But those of us who live and work at Penn State, and who are most horrified and disgusted by these crimes, might yet be able to try to say that some of what has been said and written about Paterno has been unfair-even unhinged. And we might be able to say so while acknowledging that his failure to ensure Sandusky was stopped is more than enough to taint his legacy forever.

I have read a year's worth of essays and blog posts and tweets and message boards now, and I have found that there are people out there who speak as if Joe Paterno had tried to find ways to help Jerry Sandusky rape children for decades. It is no wonder that 28 percent of the American public believes that Paterno himself was a child rapist, and an additional 15 percent are not sure. As usual, The Onion said it best: "Additional Findings Show Every Penn State Student, Alumnus Also Knew About Ongoing Child Molestation." That is how some of the media coverage has gone.

I have read countless denunciations of the man's desire to coach into his 80s, written by people who are convinced that Paterno covered up Sandusky's crimes simply because he wanted the record for most career wins-and who are apparently unaware that Paterno feared that when he stopped coaching he would die. (You know what? He was right.) I have read longtime Paterno haters jump on the man's corpse because he continued to play Rashard Casey at quarterback at the start of the 2000 season, after Casey had been charged with aggravated assault by the Hoboken, N.J., police, despite the fact that Casey said he was innocent. (The grand jury refused to indict him, and the city of Hoboken eventually settled Casey's lawsuit for malicious prosecution.) Paterno's support of Casey was actually laudable, at least for people who believe in the presumption of innocence.

I have read sportswriters sputtering with indignation all over again about how arrogant and deluded Paterno was to believe that Penn State, and not Texas, should have been national champions in 1969, because everybody knows that Texas was a stronger team. (As the sportswriter Allen Barra recently pointed out in a sneering review of Joe Posnanski's biography of Paterno, Penn State's opponents that year were very weak, going 49-44; as Barra inexplicably failed to point out, Texas' opponents were 39-61. You could look it up.) I have read right-minded citizens complaining loudly about Paterno's exorbitant salary, ignorant of the fact that it was a fraction of those of his peers for almost his entire career. Our local paper's former sports editor actually came out of retirement to chortle that he always knew Paterno would come to a bad end, and recounted the outrage he felt in 1985 when Paterno didn't tell him the full story of some kid's injury. (I am not making this up.) I know it is hard to think that "Paterno is innocent of X and Y even though he is at fault for Z," when Z involves something so hideous and overwhelming. But the schadenfreude and the piling on have been remarkable.

And I have watched in amazement as Vicky Triponey, a former vice president for student affairs who became infamous in some circles at Penn State for eliminating the right of students to have a say in what groups are recognized on campus, remade herself as "the Woman Who Stood Up to Paterno" (to cite a CNN.com headline from July 2012). If you never heard of Triponey until she began to take her sweet revenge on Paterno, you don't know how surreal it is for many of us to see the woman who tried to cut funds from the student radio station—for its criticisms of the university administration, some students charged—being touted as the brave whistle-blower who lost her job for crossing the football coach.

Yet it is probably true that over the last decade of Paterno's career, there was something like a bunker mentality among people in the football program. They (rightly) tuned out the people who called for Casey's head in 2000. They rightly tuned out those who called for Paterno to be fired in 2003-4, after several losing seasons.

But they also tuned out the critics even when football players trashed an off-campus apartment and badly injured a student; they tuned out the critics even when Paterno made a foolish remark about a Florida State player accused of sexual assault before a bowl game; and they tuned out the critics even though their own inaction and insularity in 2001 allowed Jerry Sandusky to rape and molest children for another decade. That's the stuff that really matters. Sportswriters can stop complaining about the time Paterno grabbed that referee after a blown call in the game against Iowa in 2002. The important thing is the call Paterno blew the previous year.

The NCAA penalties have had one terrible side effect in Happy Valley: They have made the Sandusky scandal all about football again. Not about the failures of local law enforcement and the closed shop of university administration. About the football team. Walk or drive around town and you'll see signs everywhere: Proud to Support Penn State Football. To an outsider, surely those signs read: We're Just Going to Pretend This Whole Thing Never Happened.

And yet there is something deeply amiss about those penalties. Nothing about the Sandusky scandal involves the corruption of academics by athletics. I know this argument will get nowhere with people who clearly believe (as do a great number of professors) that the very existence of a big-time football program constitutes a corruption of academics by athletics. Penn State committed no recruiting violations; boosters did not funnel money to athletes; and, most important, no faculty member here was ever pressured into relaxing academic standards for athletes.

Meanwhile, we've recently learned that down in Chapel Hill, the University of North Carolina has for years offered a bogus no-show course for athletes. You know, doing the kind of thing that directly undermines the academic mission of the university. So far the NCAA's response to that travesty is that the matter is out of their jurisdiction. (I am not making that up, either.) And over in Lexington, John Calipari, coach of the national champion University of Kentucky men's basketball team, has developed an innovative "one and done" strategy—telling recruits they need attend Kentucky for only a year before declaring their eligibility for the NBA draft—making the academic requirements of his institution irrelevant. You know, the kind of thing that directly undermines the academic mission of the university. Calipari is being hailed by sportswriters as a genius—indeed, by some of the same sportswriters who spit when they hear Paterno's name.

Yes, of course, Something Had to Be Done about Penn State. Many people wanted to see the football program shut down altogether, on the theory that administrators shielded Sandusky in order to preserve the reputation of the football program. That's understandable. But every knowledgeable observer knows that the NCAA's penalties against Penn State will have all the precedent-setting power of Bush v. Gore. The NCAA will simply never intervene in a campus-related criminal matter like this again. Nor should it.

The Sandusky scandal is a criminal matter. It is not an opportunity for those of you who hate college football to opine about the evils of college football. The evils of college football are real enough. And professors are especially sensitive to them: There have been tensions between athletes and intellectuals ever since the first teenage Greek athlete deposited the first teenage Greek philosopher in a high-school wastebasket.

After I published an op-ed essay in The New York Times last year on the faculty's horrified response to the grand-jury report on the Sandusky case, a colleague at another institution praised me for speaking up, but added that I should have said something about "college-football culture." "Why?" I asked. Because there is something specific about college-football culture that attracts or produces serial child rapists? Sandusky did use football—as he used his charity—to groom his victims. But child predators like him have beset every organized sport, not to mention the Boy Scouts of America and the Catholic Church. And, to say it again (because almost no one outside Centre County is talking about it), sometimes they even infest, or create, charitable organizations like Second Mile.

But in a sense it is true that football is an affront to the academic mission of a university. The same goes for basketball: Revenue-producing sports warp and distort institutions of higher education and should have no place on a serious campus. Serious campuses should be places for sports that are more acceptable to intellectuals, like baseball, golf, tennis, field hockey, volleyball, swimming and diving, track and field, fencing, gymnastics, soccer, rugby, lacrosse, and (perhaps most important) squash. Prep-school sports, played by articulate, clean-cut young men and women from good backgrounds. (Wrestling and ice hockey are distasteful but can stay for now.)

No one complains—hell, no one even cares—that some of America's small, elite, liberal-arts colleges have student bodies one-quarter of which are made up of athletes in those sports, even if those athletes have grades and SAT's considerably lower than those of their fellow students. I made that point to one of my favorite liberal journalists last year, just after she'd written a column calling for the elimination of big-time (i.e., football and basketball) programs at American universities. She replied that I was trying to deflect attention from Penn State by bringing up irrelevant side issues. How was I to know that my favorite journalist's daughter plays rugby for an elite liberal-arts college? Yes, the money involved in college football and basketball is stunning—all the more so when you realize that the vast majority of so-called revenue-producing programs are financial sinkholes, draining money away from the educational missions of their universities. And yes, that money can corrupt an institution from top to bottom. But does anyone seriously believe that if Jerry Sandusky had been a wrestling or gymnastics coach, journalists would be calling for the closure of small-time college sports programs across the board?

And then there is the fact that most of these big-time sports programs can be found at large public universities. Everyone knows that Penn State is a mediocre university because, shut up, that's why. It has a major football program, and it has the word "State" in its name. For years I told my colleagues that we could do wonders for our reputation in academic circles simply by renaming ourselves Atherton University. (After our seventh president. The main road in town is Atherton Street. Doesn't the name sound nice?) And never mind our impressive climb in the National Research Council rankings since 1995; everyone knows that the latest NRC rankings are deeply flawed. As indeed they are: No plausible ranking system could possibly place Penn State and Arizona State in the top 10 English departments nationwide. The NRC should revert to its previous, purely reputational model. That way, as New York University's John Sexton once said, Princeton's law school can be ranked in the top 20 even though it doesn't exist.

My point is that Penn State's football program did not corrupt the university's academic mission. On the contrary, Penn State became a far stronger institution academically over the course of Paterno's years here, and partly as a result of his efforts. My colleagues in English and across the campus did everything we could to enhance the university's national academic reputation over the past decade or two, just as Paterno himself threw his cultural capital into expanding the library because, as he often said, "You can't have a great university without a great library." If we are proud of what we've accomplished, it's because we did it at a place tucked into the rural Alleghenies that most outsiders associate only with football.

And that brings me back to those signs, Proud to Support Penn State Football. Lately I have seen companion signs, Proud to Support Penn State Academics. Now there's a thought! But from what I can tell, in an informal survey of my surroundings, people and businesses in State College are roughly 12 times as proud to support Penn State football as they are to support Penn State academics. (I have not seen any businesses sporting an "academics" sign by itself.) That seems about right, I think to myself ruefully. We have a wonderful and enthusiastic alumni base and a terrific alumni association. But we also have some alumni who think—or behave as if—they graduated from a football team.

We are far from alone, of course. I taught for 12 years at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where I learned that for thousands of Illinois alumni, the most important thing about their university was the spectacle of some white kid dressing up in American Indian garb and cavorting about the football field at halftime. Too few alumni cared that their alma mater has one of the largest libraries in the country.

In its time of trial, Penn State could use more alumni who feel about the library the way Joe Paterno did—and who can take pride in the fact that regardless of whether the football team ever gets back to a bowl game, so many of Penn State's doctoral programs are in the top 10 nationwide. The day thousands of alumni cheer "We are Penn State" in celebration of the fact that the anthropology department is No. 1 nationally (having defeated Duke in the prestigious Boas Bowl) will be the day we know we've changed the culture in Happy Valley.

In a perfect world, there would be no child rapists; in a world slightly better than the one I inhabit, legal authorities would snap into action when a licensed psychologist identifies someone as a child rapist; and in the world I wish I inhabited, everyone with any knowledge of the 2001 incident would have made sure that Jerry Sandusky never touched another boy, and Joe Paterno himself would have taken the lead. It is inconceivable to me that the man who loved the Aeneid because he considered it the great epic of honor and duty would not have done more when apprised of Sandusky's behavior than report it up the chain of command.

And now what remains? Paterno's famous statue has been removed from outside the stadium, and the student encampment, Paternoville, has been renamed Nittanyville. Brown University has taken his name off an athletics award (an alumnus, he remains in Brown's Hall of Fame), and Nike has taken his name off its child-care center. On Penn State's campus, although his name remains on the library he loved and supported so generously (as well it should), these days you can't even buy a sandwich at the campus sub shop that once called itself Joegie's. Joe's likeness has been scraped from the front window, and the shop has been blandly rechristened Hub Subs. We are still stumbling, still trying to figure out how to proceed: Erasing the name seems too easy a fix, a simple scrubbing and denial, and yet keeping it seems to say that everything is just fine and nothing has changed in Happy Valley. I have made my decision, but the question of how to remember Joe Paterno is far from settled.

But if I am not happy about resigning the Paterno chair, it is because I am not happy about what has happened here in the valley. I am not happy that we were the site of a horrible child-rape scandal extending over many years, perpetrated by a former defensive coordinator for the football team, and enabled by a bungled police investigation and university leaders who were either grossly negligent, actively conspiring in crime, or (the most benevolent possible reading) both clueless and incurious about who and what they were dealing with.

As the world (even unto Antarctica) now knows, one of Gary Schultz's 1998 notes reads: "Is this the opening of pandora's box?" and "Other children?" Yes, Mr. Schultz, there were other children. Yes, it was Pandora's box. We all wish you had followed up on those questions, and that taking such a step somehow would have prevented Sandusky from gaining access to any more young boys. It's their lives that should have been everyone's first concern. Surely, in that light, the fate of the Paterno chair recedes into unimportance.

Michael Bérubé has just become the Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Literature at Pennsylvania State University, where he is also director of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities. He is president of the Modern Language Association.

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