Moral Compasses. Can I Haz Pleeze? (Paterno/PSU Edition)
This item in the Times yesterday caught my attention:
In January 2011, Joe Paterno learned prosecutors were investigating his longtime assistant coach Jerry Sandusky for sexually assaulting young boys….
That same month, Mr. Paterno, the football coach at Penn State, began negotiating with his superiors to amend his contract, with the timing something of a surprise because the contract was not set to expire until the end of 2012, according to university documents and people with knowledge of the discussions. By August, Mr. Paterno and the university’s president, both of whom were by then embroiled in the Sandusky investigation, had reached an agreement.
Mr. Paterno was to be paid $3 million at the end of the 2011 season if he agreed it would be his last. Interest-free loans totaling $350,000 that the university had made to Mr. Paterno over the years would be forgiven as part of the retirement package. He would also have the use of the university’s private plane and a luxury box at Beaver Stadium for him and his family to use over the next 25 years.
The university’s full board of trustees was kept in the dark about the arrangement until November, when Mr. Sandusky was arrested….
Anyone care to defend Paterno on this one? PSU? Best keep this in mind then:
The university’s full board of trustees was kept in the dark about the arrangement until November, when Mr. Sandusky was arrested and the contract arrangements, along with so much else at Penn State, were upended. Mr. Paterno was fired, two of the university’s top officials were indicted in connection with the scandal, and the trustees, who held Mr. Paterno’s financial fate in their hands, came under verbal assault from the coach’s angry supporters.
Board members who raised questions about whether the university ought to go forward with the payments were quickly shut down, according to two people with direct knowledge of the negotiations.
In the end, the board of trustees — bombarded with hate mail and threatened with a defamation lawsuit by Mr. Paterno’s family — gave the family virtually everything it wanted, with a package worth roughly $5.5 million. Documents show that the board even tossed in some extras that the family demanded, like the use of specialized hydrotherapy massage equipment for Mr. Paterno’s wife at the university’s Lasch Building, where Mr. Sandusky had molested a number of his victims.
I’m reading Chris Haye’s Twilight of the Elites just now — highly recommended btw, from a just over half way perspective — and one of his key points is that disintegration of a viable polity or society is driven in part by the discovery that those at the top play be utterly different rules than the rest of us.
One more thing: the claim routinely made by academics — and especially by the leaders of the Academy — is that in a complex and here-and-now society, universities teach and embody not just knowledge, but values — or rather, an approach to living that makes it possible to lead an ethical life, one of value. Obviously, everyone reading this can come up with examples in which such claims are honored only in the breach. But still, that’s the point of the liberal arts, and have been claimed as such since the days of the trivium and quadrivium (and before).
That means to me that there really is a higher obligation here — just as there was and is for, say, the Catholic Church when confronted by the abomination of child rape. The Church conspicuously failed in its duties to its own claims of virtue, and it continues to do so, which is one of the reasons why someone like me, not a member of the faith, so deeply resents any assertion of moral authority in politics by the princes of the church.
In that context Penn State/Paterno scandal only makes it easier to lump the universities in with every other failed institution in our society — at a time when the importance of knowledge and its interpretation/application to the great problems we face has never been greater.
Hence, it seems to me that Penn State needs demonstrate that it’s not just another Lehman/Boston Archdiocese. How to do that? I don’t really know — I haven’t thought hard, nor talked to people who really understand how institutional cultures change. Suggestions?
Image: Francisco de Goya, The Great He-Goat or Witches Sabbath, 1821-1823 (worth the click through for seeing it at a readable size.)