Penn State's Scandal and the Truth about Power in Academia
The sexual abuse scandal at Penn State gives us a glimpse into power -- the power with which universities arrogantly operate and how they consider themselves islands quarantined from the legal and moral concerns of the larger society.
Universities are fiefdoms. In many locales, they are the largest employers. Their press releases are faithfully transmitted by many local newspapers as real news. Few local newspapers dare to have someone assigned to the campus, the way reporters are assigned to monitor the police, courts, or other institutions. Campus scandals are routinely hushed up, and the intrepid young reporter who will investigate a campus scandal, even on his own time, will often find that his paper will not run it.
The only time a scandal makes news is when it escapes into the public domain. Penn State football coach Joe Paterno followed the norm adhered to by nearly all faculty and staff within universities: keep within the "family" what you see, no matter how odious, no matter how evil, and no matter how much a violation of law. As cops have their code of silence, so too do universities.
Universities have an "us and them" mindset. One university administrator, whom I knew, consistently and openly personified this mentality by speaking of the parents and the larger public as the "great unwashed" and of the elected officials in the capital that provided our budget as "those crooks in the state house."
Corruption and scandal have been endemic to athletic programs. Within an institution that arrogantly perceives itself as standing apart from the larger society, athletic programs stand apart from the institution. The highest-paid members of many large universities are frequently coaches -- not the university president, and most certainly not Nobel laureates.
But here I would judge not the programs, but the hypocrisy of the rest of the campus and the larger society that promulgates the myth of the "student athlete." With tens of millions of dollars at stake in alumni donations, television revenues, and ticket sales, no athletic program is without its "friends of the program." And the real corruption is that the athletes -- who are disproportionately minorities -- don't get paid.
On any given football Saturday, everyone involved in the production of the game, from the coaches to the institutions to the ticket vendors to the TV crews, is getting paid -- everyone, that is, except the kids out on the field busting their bodies...sometimes for a degree, but most certainly not for an education.
This inequity is designed to lead to corruption, and everyone knows it.
For decades, athletic programs were seen as a thing apart. Universities naively believed that athletic programs could be corrupt, and the corruption could be tolerated, but it would not touch the rest of the campus.
But all that changed dramatically several decades ago with the creation of an administrative class. Milovan Djilas, the Yugoslav political theorist, would have understood this in the context of his "new class" -- a ruling class that was a people apart, one that spoke in the name of the larger good, but whose members were loyal only to themselves.
When I was entering my academic career, two of my most prominent senior professors, who had been dragooned into the administration, spoke about the need for a scholar to avoid administrative service at all costs. Back then, it was considered the first refuge of the incompetent, those who realized they lacked either the motivation or the gray matter to survive the rigors of an academic career in a research university.
Administrators had power over budgets and personnel decisions, but unless they were both reluctant recruits for their positions and had achieved some status within the community of scholars, they were generally viewed with disdain as second-raters, and they knew it. Administrators, however, still shared the value system of the scholars they had wanted to be.
Then emerged the great bureaucratization of the university. A series of government intrusions and demands for record-keeping -- dramatically enhanced by affirmative action -- required not reluctant administrators, but a group of people who could actually thrive on detail, who could become seriously involved in the application and assessment of rules, writing memos, and holding pointless and ritualistic meetings. These people needed to compensate for their lack of professional status by asserting their titles and being withholding and controlling in the application of budgetary and personnel decisions.
Many members of this new class emerged from colleges of education. They boldly survived the intellectual rigors of such demanding graduate programs as educational administration. These people became the equivalent of Arthur Koestler's Gletkin, in Darkness at Noon -- the new Soviet automaton, the man who didn't question, but instead obeyed.
The new administrative class joined the ranks of the mediocre. Together they set a normative tone to use the power of new federal regulations, the way Gletkin used the enemies list of the purges, to assert control. Administrative accusations of racism, sexism, or homophobia could sideline an entire department. Administrative due process became transformed into Star Chamber proceedings. Administrators shed the intellectual norms of their predecessors and became a power unto themselves.
The bureaucracy became more authoritarian and more hierarchical. Meaningful faculty opposition was not to be tolerated. The institution became increasingly insular. Academic governance became more like that of a bad corporation, which is why organizations such as FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) are overwhelmed in pursuing basic constitutional rights for faculty and students.
This new class produced a new culture, one that was small-minded, isolated from societal norms, and despotic. Joe Paterno no more thought of reporting pedophilia to the police than would a member of an ecclesiastical order, and for all the same reasons. The institution is more important than the individual, even if the individual is a child being exploited for sex.
This is not to excuse Paterno, for there is no excuse for his behavior. Paterno's behavior is to be understood as emblematic of the culture of the new class of university administrators. These are the modern-day academic Gletkins who demand loyalty first to the institution, which usually means loyalty to themselves because they are one with the institution.
Will the scandal at Penn State now bring about change? No more than will the next NYPD police scandal or 60 Minutes revelations about Nancy Pelosi's insider trading will reform Congress. As long as the culture of the academy teaches that the primary allegiance of faculty and staff is to the institution and not to external democratic values, the next Penn State is lurking just around the corner.
Abraham H. Miller is an emeritus professor of political science who served on the faculties of three major research universities in a career that has spanned more than three decades.